My personal reality of dog ownership includes frequent veterinary bills, skin allergy meds, anti-cataract eye drops, prescription shampoo, specific hypoallergenic diet, occasional emergency trips to the pet ER, scratched hardwood flooring and gnawed furniture. Now if I had a virtual pet all I would have to do is power up my iPad, press the virtual Fido avatar, and voila’: A canine companion that needs little maintenance, eats nothing, costs nothing, and doesn’t require walks in the dark frigid mornings of winter or the sweltering high afternoons of summer. In fact, with a mere swipe of my tablet screen my virtual pet could even converse with me and remind me to get up and exercise, take my vitamin D tab, or just lend an ear when I want to blow off a little steam and there’s no one else to call.
I envision this possible scenario:
Me: Fido, tell me the truth: Do I look better in the blue dress or the red?
Virtual Fido: LOL (laughing out loud). I’m colorblind; COR (Come on, Raeleen)!
Me: Okay OOTD (outfit of the day) then will be tomato-red Yoga pants and purple studded sweatshirt.
Virtual Fido: ROFL (Rolling on the floor laughing)
Me: YOLO (You only live once)
Virtual Fido: ^5 (high five).
Okay, perhaps it wouldn’t go down exactly like that, but could I become so attached to this maintenance-free virtual pet that it starts to appeal to me more than my sweet, adorable, albeit issue-laded real dog?
No way, because despite my sickly pup’s requirements I can’t imagine life without her. I get pure love in return. And loyalty. And a ton of laughs and smiles just watching her play with her toys, or scamper toward her food dish when its time to eat. No, Virtual Fido could never replace the joy I get from my Real Fido.
That said, I cannot dismiss the fact that Digital Fido can possibly make an important contribution to an older person’s life.
The truth is, about 30% of older adults live alone and the number growing in leaps and bounds with each year that passes. Granted, some are alone because they actually enjoy more solitude than most, but even the most solitary amongst us need social interaction every now and then. Studies on loneliness show that too much isolation can affect us emotionally and physically, and even put us at a higher risk of premature death. Do I encourage you to welcome a live pet into your home if you are able to love and care for it, and provide it a good life? Absolutely. Researchers have consistently shown that older adults who own pets—especially dogs, reap a number of benefits beyond the obvious companionship, which protects against loneliness and isolation. Dog owners specifically have been found to reap additional health benefits from increased physical activity and an improved social life. You will get more exercise throughout the day than a non-pet owner typically gets, and you almost can’t help but meet new acquaintances who want to meet your adorable furry creature and start a conversation as you pass by.
But of course, not everyone has the temperament to be a pet owner. Not everyone can accommodate an animal in their condo or apartment. Not everyone can afford the expenses that come with owning a dog.
Seeing a need for more connectivity in the aging population to combat isolation, researchers from the universities of Washington Seattle, and Northwestern conducted a pilot study with 10 older adults ages 68-89 from a retirement community in Seattle, who had no cognitive impairment and who were comfortable using technology. They were trained in using a tablet-based ECA (embodied conversational agent) system with a pet avatar named “Digital Pet”. The participants were interviewed over the next three months at baseline, midpoint and an exit interview.
While there were a few concerns/complaints about this virtual pet (e.g.—it didn’t work right when the Internet went down; the conversations were too superficial, etc.), overall, the reaction was surprisingly favorable. One person reported that having Digital Pet was a fun conversation starter when she took him out for a walk! As with any pilot study, the information gathered is intended to identify and iron out the glitches before launching a larger more encompassing study. The researchers agreed that having older persons as co-designers of the system would help to help to increase the usefulness and acceptability of the Digital Pet.
Let’s be honest: None of us really think that computers can ever replace the warmth and cuddliness of a real live pet (or human being for that matter), but when used to enhance a person’s quality of life, who might otherwise be isolated—I doubt that anyone would deny that the “Digital Pet” ECS might have some real potential down the road.
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Nai-Ching, C et.al. (2017) Pilot testing a digital pet avatar for older adults Geriatric Nursing 38 pp. 542-547
Heuberger, R. (2017) Associations of Pet Ownership with Older Adults Eating
Patterns and Health. Current Gerontology and Geriatrics Research Volume 2017 pp. 1-9.
© Raeleen Mautner, LLC 2018