Animatronic Therapy Cats Bring Laughter and Smiles to Memory Care Unit

The companion animals help residents connect with pleasant memories from the past

Photo: RiverSpring Health

The memory care floors of the Hebrew Home nursing center are home to some difficult narratives.

Stories of bright, lively individuals, who have become resigned, agitated or silent as they battle with the frustrating effects of dementia and Alzheimer's disease, are the norm.

So Mary Farkas, the Director of Therapeutic Activities at the Hebrew Home, is always delighted when she hears a beautiful burst of laughter from one of the residents. And lately, there has been a surge of happiness in the nursing home, thanks to the introduction of some special feline friends.

Hebrew Home recently "adopted" several of Hasbro's Joy for All therapeutic sensory cats, animatronic felines that respond to touch, and residents are overjoyed with the new additions.

The responses to the companion animals, who are brought to the floors in their own kitty carriers, are varied, but almost always positive. Farkas told PEOPLE of one formerly silent resident, who now enjoys interacting with the cats and filling Hebrew Home with a "laugh that really makes your day." The agitation of another resident melts away when she comes in contact with one of these special animals, who also inspire the woman to sing as she strokes their fur. Others living at Hebrew Home feel that the cats understand them, or are flooded with positive memories of pets they had in the past when they hold the animals.

It's a unique interaction that manages to reach a group of people who often find communication difficult, a gift to families who feel they have lost the relative they remember growing up with.

Much like the reactions the cats elicit, Farkas believes the feelings behind the results are varied, too.

"If they are using their hands, or have a difficult time feeling calm, the repetitive gesture of touching something soft seems to help," the director said.

The "feeling and weight of the cats, harkens back to a maternal role and a time that they felt good," she adds.

And a good feeling, especially from a non-pharmacological source, is what Farkas wants for her residents.

"These cats are central to a larger focus on non-pharmacological interventions for Memory Care residents," she shared. "With an increased focus on art, dance and music therapies and recreational activities, our residents are enjoying a greater quality of life, with a reduced dependency on medications." RiverSpring Health

And while Farkas, who brings frequently her own dog to work to interact with residents, understands the positive power of contact with real animals, the sensory companion pets provide something living cats and dogs can't: Consistency.

"I can't be with these residents, with my dog, all the time," Farkas said. "The cats can provide comfort for residents at three in the morning and offer the same comfort again at lunch."

The felines have become such a hit at Hebrew House that the facility has ordered a new wave of the companion animals, so more residents can interact with the cats at once. Several families have also decided to buy an individual cat for their relative to provide a comforting friend 24/7.

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