Animatronic pets distributed by Normandale Center for Healing & Wholeness are bringing comfort to those suffering from dementia and their caregivers.
The Normandale Center, which supports caregivers out of its headquarters in Normandale Lutheran Church in Edina, distributed a handful of the therapy “pets” about a year ago, according to a summary of the program provided by the organization. Edina residents Diane and Andy Severson, who have been married for 58 years, are among those who have benefited from the mechanical playmates.
Nearly 10 years ago, Andy was diagnosed with mild cognitive decline, often an early diagnosis for dementia. Since that diagnosis, Diane has steadfastly stayed by Andy’s side as his sole caregiver. And although they still laugh and find joy in the little moments together, today, Andy’s cognitive abilities are rapidly declining and he is in the later stages of Alzheimer’s.
Alzheimer’s is a disease that affects millions of people worldwide, and it can be emotionally and physically taxing for caregivers. This disease can cause memory loss, confusion, personality changes and difficulty communicating, among other symptoms. Caring for a loved one with dementia is a challenging and often overwhelming task filled with heavy emotions, but nonprofit organizations like Normandale Center for Healing & Wholeness provide crucial support to caregivers like Diane.
Diane and Andy Severson are joined by Normandale Center for Healing and Wholeness volunteer Denise Doucette (middle) as Andy cradles his animatronic therapy pet, Muffin.
In addition to benefiting from the consultation services offered at the Normandale Center, which include caregiver support, respite services and classes, Diane has enjoyed the breaks provided by the animatronic therapy dog she received through the organization.
About a year ago the center distributed a handful of animatronic pets as part of a grant from the Minnesota Board of Aging. The center’s executive director, Jennifer Monroe, said that during the pandemic, they had to be creative in finding ways to support caregivers like Diane. The animatronic pets were a perfect solution, she said, because they can be used in people’s homes to give caregivers a break.
These sensory items can captivate and comfort those with dementia. Andy can sometimes get confused and even agitated, but the pet dog, which he lovingly named Muffin, helps calm him down, often for hours. It looks realistic and even barks happily when petted. Indeed, their companion has been a stress relief and listening ear for both Diane and Andy.
Research has shown that robotic pets can be useful in therapy for dementia and other chronic illnesses. According to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Directors Association, robotic pets can provide emotional and social benefits for people with dementia. These pets reduce stress, boost mood and lower blood pressure, without some of the disadvantages and unpredictability of real animals.
“I don’t have to walk Muffin in subzero temperatures!” Diane joked.
Their fluffy pet dog Muffin has been a source of comfort and joy, and a topic of conversation. Diane says that caring for Muffin gives her and her husband something positive and light-hearted to focus on and talk about.
“It’s almost like having a real dog,” Diane said. “We’ve both come to love Muffin like he’s a real animal.”
The Normandale Center for Healing & Wholeness has been providing support to caregivers like Diane for nearly 25 years. Find more information about the center at NormandaleCenter.org.
Written by Elizabeth Robinson; (Original article published in the Edina Sun Current on May 15, 2023)