Robotic pets provide ‘unique’ support for Wisconsin and Michigan veterans

By Justin Kern, American Red Cross

Veterans have had challenges with loneliness and isolation exacerbated by the constraints and safety restrictions set in place by the COVID-19 pandemic.

One creative solution? Meet Princess, the robotic cat.

Since spring 2020, the Wisconsin Region of the American Red Cross has supplied approximately 17 robotic cats and dogs to facilities that house and care for veterans, including at the Oscar G. Johnson V.A. in Iron Mountain, Michigan, and the Tomah V.A. Medical Center and the Wisconsin Veterans Home at King in Waupaca.

Veteran Susan Vich poses with her fuzzy friend, a robotic pet supplied by the American Red Cross, from her home at the Oscar G. Johnson V.A. in Iron Mountain, Mich. Submitted photo

Heather LaPalm, a Recreation Therapy Assistant at the V.A. in Iron Mountain, has been part of the team to find a match for veterans who may want to take in one of the robotic pets.

“People can’t get out. They feel down and it was a pick-me-up for certain veterans,” LaPalm said. “It really fits for certain people, if they need something to fill that void. It’s been really hard for them, not being able to see other people [during COVID] … so these pets have been important for them.”

The battery-powered pets have soft fur and are programmed for a series of responses, like purring when they are petted or meowing in response to conversation. They’re also light-sensitive – so as not to disrupt sleep – and don’t come with those inevitable living pet needs for meals or house training.

While there is no confusing these tiny robots for their real-life counterparts, they provide a caring touchpoint for veterans at the facility, who have been separated from many of their typical social and personal interactions during the pandemic.

Sometimes they serve as conversation starters, on pets people had in their youth, or can be used to soften the move out of a facility by a friend, as was the case of one recent female veteran who took in a robotic cat for companionship. LaPalm recalls how one veteran, missing his own family’s pets, not to mention his family, found a light-hearted connection with his robotic cat, which he named Princess.

Jack Pemble, a Vietnam War veteran, pets his robotic cat on his bed at the Iron Mountain V.A. Submitted photo

“A lot of them are feeling very lonely. They can’t see their pets or their family. He said, ‘Sometimes I talk to the cat and the cat meows back at me. They’re like a real cat.’ He laughs and smiles when he talks about his cat,” said LaPalm.

Michelle Matuszak, Regional Program Manager, Service to the Armed Forces, shares the difficulty in finding valuable ways to support veterans when they’ve been isolated and unable to host events, including the typical visits and activities with Red Cross volunteers and staff. While the robotic pet program may be a bit unusual, she said feedback from staff V.A.s and veterans homes shows an innovative spirit in providing all that is possible for those who served in the military.

“It’s reassuring that this is something that is benefitting the veterans as well as the staff. It’s been heart-breaking to hear over the past year with COVID, [how] everything is shut down,” Matuszak said. “Figuring out how we can [still] connect with the veterans, connect with the staff, and to hear that the veterans really are building relationships with these robotic pets, it is unique.”

As the pandemic subsides brings the hope that more in-person and typical events and activities would return. But LaPalm and Matuszak both said the battery-powered pups and kitties should stick around after the pandemic because of their proven boost to veterans facing loneliness or isolation.

“There is always the need for social and emotional support. It’s robotic, but it gives you attention back, it gives you an interaction,” LaPalm said. “It’s a key piece of their needs.”

Your support of our Service to the Armed Forces mission makes programs like this possible. Click here for more ways we support veterans, service members and their families and to find out how you can get involved.

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