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Professor Wendy Moyle with residents from Wesley Mission, Brisbane holding the Paro companion robots. Photo from Journal of Dementia Care.

When I was a child, I had a toy from Seaworld that was a baby seal, and man I loved that little guy. I also had a Furby, one of those fluffy toy robots that took the world by storm in 1999, and are having a major comeback now.

Little did I know that, had I smooshed them together in an elaborate Toy Storyesque toy reconstruction, I could have invented Paro, the robotic baby harp seal.

Paro, developed by Dr Takanori Shibata at Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, is used in dementia care. Its big, blinking eyes gaze at the person interacting with it, responding to sound and light. It can recognise words used by its owner and though it can’t talk back, it can make baby seal noises and nuzzle.

This engagement helps reduce anxiety in people with dementia, according to research led by Wendy Moyle at the Griffith Health Institute in Brisbane, Australia. The research split 18 dementia patients into two groups, one engaging with Paro and the other reading in a group. The results found that people in the PARO group had higher quality of life scores after five weeks compared to the reading group.

Why a fluffy baby seal? As well as being downright adorable it is just about the same size as a baby, so people can hold it on their laps. The researchers also note that some people have had bad experiences with a cats or dogs, and might react with fear. Who could be afraid of a baby seal?

On the downside, each Paro costs about $5,000, and need to be shipped back to Japan for repairs. At such a hefty price tag, it might limit use in care facilities. Then again, if it’s significantly effective at improving quality of life, reducing need for medication or allowing people to live at home longer, maybe it’s money well spent.

That’s the focus of Wendy Moyle’s next project, supported by a one million dollar boost by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC). The new study will be a large, randomised trial involving 380 people with dementia, and will compare three different care options – Paro, a soft plush toy, and usual care. Large aged care facilities in SE Queensland interested in taking part in the research can click through for more details.