Of singing dolls and gymnastics dogs

For Sabina Misoch, Head of the Interdisciplinary Competence Centre for Ageing at the FHS St.Gallen, one of the highlights of her research trip to Japan was a visit to a nursing home offering robotic therapies.

Marion Loher

«I was very touched by the therapy session», says Sabina Misoch. During her research trip to Japan, the head of the Interdisciplinary Competence Centre (IKOA-FHS) had been invited to participate in a robotics therapy session for people with dementia. The gerontologist and her Japanese research colleague travelled to the northwest of Tokyo to visit a nursing home that has been offering robotic therapy for people with dementia for several years now.

«Often, people suffering from dementia don’t respond much. But during this therapy session it was lovely to see how the elderly people started to open up more during the session and began interacting with the robots,» says Sabina Misoch.

What women and men respond to

A range of different objects were used during the therapy. «One of these was a doll, about 30 to 40 centimetres tall, with a button on both palms. If you pick the doll up and press the button, it starts singing old Japanese songs.» According to the gerontologist, singing recalls many old memories, as the songs from childhood or adolescence are often still very present. «One woman hugged the doll tightly with a big smile on her face. She kept speaking to the doll and stroking it. It was very moving.» It was also interesting to note that the men didn’t react at all to the singing doll.

They showed more interest in a ball game with a robot dog. The dog had a basket measuring about 30 centimetres attached to its back. «The session participants were divided into two groups», says Sabina Misoch while explaining the game. «The participants were given 20 ping pong balls – white for one group, orange for the other.» The game then got under way: the subjects had to try and throw the balls into the basket while the robot dog ran back and forth.

«One man, who had been sitting quite passively on his chair up until then, really came alive. His ambition seemed to have been awakened and he really got into the task. The other participants couldn’t get enough of the ball game, either.» It was exciting for the gerontologist to see how people suffering from dementia can be activated in such a simple and playful way. The nursing home residents also participated enthusiastically in the gymnastics exercises, which were demonstrated by specially programmed robot dogs.

Far removed from any stereotypes

Sabina Misoch’s visit to the nursing home made a lasting impression on her. On the one hand, because the home was not as high-tech as we Europeans might have imagined. «The whole set-up was quite basic. The residents sleep in four-bed rooms, which would be impossible here.» On the other hand, because the relatively simple form of therapy offers great potential in Switzerland for people with dementia and for elderly people who are cognitively healthy. «Ultimately, the aim is to activate the residents and encourage them to communicate and interact. Robotic therapy in this Japanese nursing home has shown that this is possible.»

Pictures: Sabina Misoch