Elizabeth Pagan can’t help but talk about her cats.
She talks about June, a cat she had before she moved to the Hebrew Home at Riverdale who passed away. Then came Sapphire, who was gray, much like the one she’s petting.
Except the cat on her lap isn’t real. It’s a robotic cat that weighs and sounds like a real one, meant to comfort older adults who don’t have access to a real one.
Pagan knows the cat on her lap is robotic, yet she’s already referring to her furry friend as Sapphire. As she continues petting and giving Sapphire belly rubs, Pagan tears up about her new friend’s namesake, who lived with her in her old Bronx apartment.
“I had to give her up,” Pagan said. “I had to give her to a shelter when I moved.”
But even through her tears, Pagan keeps it light with a bit of humor as the cat continues purring and meowing in her presence.
“I have no treats,” she tells Sapphire. “Sorry.”
It’s been four years since the Hebrew Home stumbled upon Joy For All Companion Pets, a team within a company called Ageless Innovation that creates therapeutic robotic cats and dogs that retail for about $100 each. But even before that, the Hebrew Home knew the value of furry companions with its Pets by Your Side program, which allows residents to interact with live animals like therapy dogs who stop by the 5901 Palisade Ave., facility every day as well as live birds and fish housed throughout its 17 neighborhoods.
“What was lacking was cats,” Catherine Farrell, Hebrew Home’s therapeutic arts director, said. “And cats are not very easy to train and so they’re not commonly brought into institutions as pet therapy animals.”
While there are a few robot dogs at the Hebrew Home, there’s a larger population of their feline counterparts in each neighborhood. Some residents even have their own that they’ve named.
Each cat can remain powered on at all times or be on but muted. Whatever the case, the cat will always respond to touch and movement.
“If you just walk into the room and it’s on,” Farrell said, “it will meow at you like a real cat would.”
The integration of the robot cats began as a way to help residents with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia stay calm. But the cats became so popular, they’re now available to everyone 24/7.
“It’s left (in) the neighborhoods,” Farrell said. “So when my staff (is) not there and a resident is needing some comfort or some sensory items, anybody can just go to the nurse’s station, grab the cat and give it to the resident.”
While Farrell says there was a little hesitation about bringing the robot cats to the Hebrew Home, it didn’t take long for her and her team to see positive results.
“We really want to be careful not to infantilize the residents,” Farrell said. “But when we saw the actual cat and the difference it made in the residents’ lives, it was clear that that was not an issue.”
Gemma Molas, a registered nurse who works with Hebrew Home residents who are at different stages of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, said the robot cats have helped decrease her patients’ agitation during difficult moments.
One of the residents Molas works with has a tendency to scream a lot, but being around the robot cats shifts her mood entirely.
“She will just change and just look at the cat,” Molas said.
For residents who don’t have dementia or Alzheimer’s, Farrell says robot cats help them reflect on memories of their own pets.
“We can pull out more information from them to help them in this reminiscence process,” Farrell said. “It’s a great way for them to remember and to feel calmed and soothed by an animal that they really miss.”
That soothing feeling is reflected in Pagan’s relationship to the robot cats as she pets the Sapphire doppelganger. Pagan says every day is difficult for her at the Hebrew Home, but petting one of the cats is “like being at home.”
While Farrell says it would be great to have other kind of therapeutic animals — robotic or not — in the future, she wouldn’t be opposed to having more cats around the Hebrew Home.
“It would be great to have the capacity to have a cat for every single person because that would be fantastic,” she said.
And Pagan isn’t afraid to admit that she’d love a robot cat of her own.
“I want to keep one,” she said. “Maybe one day.”