Joyce Gross, a resident at Pinehurst Healthcare & Rehabilitation Center, cuddles and talks softly with a pair of companion robo pets. Her smile is simply contagious and grows broader with each stroke of the cat and dog.

After reading an article about the use of companion robo pets in a skilled nursing facility with its residents who have dementia, John Barrett, of Pinehurst, wanted to make a program of this kind a reality here in Moore County for residents like Gross. Barrett had already witnessed the impact of making visits with his own therapy dog firsthand and how the visits left residents asking for more time with the dog.

As a former caregiver to his late wife, Mary Anne, who had early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, Barrett is the co-founder of AOS & Friends Care: What Can We Do To Help?, a local nonprofit whose mission is to provide direct care and community support to older adults who are dealing with the challenges of aging, with a specific focus on those with dementia.

“I had visited Mary Anne just about daily for more than four years while she was in facilities, and I developed a keen sense for things that brought enjoyment,” Barrett says. “I wish these companion robo pets had existed back then, as having one certainly would have brought her a smile, so I believed that AOS & Friends Care should start offering these as one of our program initiatives.”

Hasbro manufactures these JOY FOR ALL Companion Pets, which come in both a dog and cat version. Battery-operated, the companion pets meow or bark, have realistic fur and sensors that react to petting, providing a life-like pet experience for the person.

Barrett and his fellow board members chose to provide both a dog and cat companion robo pet to two local care communities—Fox Hollow Senior Living and Pinehurst Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center.

“Even before we received the companion pets, we were anxious to see how the residents and the staff would interact with them,” says Nydia Brooks, executive director of Fox Hollow Senior Living. “If you could have seen the glow in residents’ eyes as we introduced them to ‘Ginger the Cat’ and ‘Lucky the dog.’ The comfort and companionship that they have provided to our residents cannot be fully explained in words.

“The use of the robotic animals as a form of pet therapy has been effective for our residents regardless of their stage of dementia. The companion pets help us to continue to promote our memory care philosophy that is designed to provide a safe and nurturing environment, where those living with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia can flourish and share a positive life experience.”

Olanda Duncan-Spencer, activities director at Pinehurst Healthcare & Rehabilitation, also recognizes how residents are benefitting from the companion pet program. The community held a contest to allow the residents to vote on names for the companion pets, which were decided as “Fluffy” for the cat and “Scruffy” for the dog.

“The residents really love them,” Duncan-Spencer says. “They provide a way for them to interact, and some residents who have more advanced dementia and don’t often respond do have a reaction to the pet’s meow or bark. The companion pets have been a very positive addition. I would definitely recommend them to other communities, especially seeing how nonverbal residents react to them and how they can trigger fond memories for a person.”

Since initiating the companion robo pet program earlier this summer, AOS&FC has provided seven pets to individuals and three sets to care communities in the Sandhills. Each companion pet costs approximately $100, but the joy they bring is priceless.

“These pets can be invaluable in engaging someone with moderate to advanced dementia,” says neuropsychologist Karen Sullivan, PhD, ABPP, AOS&FC board member and owner of Pinehurst Neuropsychology Brain & Memory Clinic. “The companion pets help them feel comforted during a time when words may be failing.”