Exploring the Design, Use and Impact of Companion Pet Robots and Automata for Older Adults and People with Dementia
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Companion robots, socially assistive robots typically possessing zoomorphic features, have shown potential in the care of older adults and people with dementia. Previous research demonstrated reduced agitation, anxiety, loneliness and blood pressure for older adults, and reduced carer burden. However, many literature gaps and methodological flaws remained, and there was limited evidence of real-world adoption into health and care practice. In particular, most research involved Paro, the robot seal costing ~£5000, a prohibitive cost for most intended end-users. Furthermore, contradictory research results, robot failures and variable responses of older people suggested sub-optimal robot design. This thesis therefore aimed to expand the knowledge base on companion robots for older adults, through collaborative action research, bridging the gap between research and practice with real-world benefit. The studies explored feedback in various settings from a collectively large sample of stakeholders essential for real-world implementation: older adults (with and without dementia), family members, care home staff and management, robot developers, health and care professionals and students. All types of stakeholder found companion robots acceptable. The value of user-centred design was demonstrated with significant differences between end-users and developers in perceptions of suitable robot design. Optimum robot design should include soft, furry, familiar, realistic embodiment, with large cute eyes, life simulation, lap-sized frame, interactivity and gaze direction and costing <£250. An effective infection control procedure was developed proven for bacterial infection of robot pets (with varying shell types), in care home settings. Ethical concerns on robot use, as reported in literature, were explored concluding that they were unlikely to pose real-world barriers. Finally, this thesis provides initial support that such affordable devices result in longer term wellbeing outcomes, such as reduced depression, anxiety and agitation for older people. In conclusion, this thesis contributes knowledge on design, use and impact of companion robots for older adults, and the user-centred feedback has informed a new prototype robot pet.