RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

ARI SHAPIRO: And I'm Ari Shapiro. In Your Health, a profile of an 81-year-old karaoke performer who sings the praises of friendship. But first, we look at Japanese inventor's unusual answer to a serious problem. People who live in nursing homes can suffer from loneliness, boredom and social isolation. Some nursing homes are turning to a fuzzy little robot to fix the problem. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: Anyone who's ever loved a dog or a cat knows how much an animal companion can bring to a person's life, but lots of retirement homes don't allow them. For example, pets can only visit at Vinson Hall's Arleigh Burke Pavilion in McLean, Virginia. But this retirement community does offer its residents something else.

(Soundbite of seal squealing)

GREENFIELDBOYCE: A nurse is holding what looks like a kid's stuffed animal. It's a baby seal - a robot baby seal. I watch as an aide helps Virginia Long use a walker to slowly come into the activity room. When she sits down, the nurse puts the seal on her lap. It's named Ollie. The robot sort of quivers as Virginia Long talks to it.

Ms. VIRGINIA LONG: What are you shivering for? Are you cold?

(Soundbite of seal squealing)

Ms. LONG: Yes. OK.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GREENFIELDBOYCE: I can't tell when Ollie is happy and not happy.

Ms. LONG: No, me neither. Are you happy? Are you happy, Ollie? Hm?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The seal has soft white fur and big black eyes. As Virginia Long strokes it, the eyes open and close.

(Soundbite of seal squealing)

GREENFIELDBOYCE: You don't think it's strange to have a seal for a pet?

Ms. LONG: Well, it's odd, yes. But lots of people have odd animals.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Later, as other people come in for bingo, I asked her why she likes the robot.

Ms. LONG: Because it's alive and you can work with it, pet it, cuddle it.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Do you have a pet now?

Ms. LONG: I did, but I don't now. I had a cat, somebody stole him.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: This seal has been available in Japan for several years under the brand name Paro. The robots sell for a few thousand bucks. Now, a new company in Florida plans to bring the seal to the U.S. And whether that's a good thing or a bad thing depends on who you ask.

The inventor thinks it's a good thing. Takanori Shibata works at Japan's National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology. He built the seal to explore how people can make emotional connections to robots. He says he tried robotic cats and dogs, but people didn't find those convincing.

MR. TAKANORI SHIBATA (National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, Japan): When I asked people to evaluate cat robot or dog robot, they expected too much. And they became (unintelligible) the robot.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: But people have no idea what a baby seal is supposed to do. So even though the robot can't walk or play games, they just think it's cute. Look at an x-ray, though, and the cuteness disappears. The robot has seriously high-tech innards: little motors, computer chips, and sensors for sound, light, and touch.

Mr. SHIBATA: And when people stroke Paro, Paro feels good. And the whiskers are also sensors.

(Soundbite of seal squealing)

Mr. SHIBATA: So Paro is going to react.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: So he doesn't like that?

Mr. SHIBATA: No. No. He doesn't like it.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: So if you touch his whiskers he just sort of makes a sound and moves his head away?

Mr. SHIBATA: Yeah.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Shibata says people have done scientific studies showing that the seal can reduce stress and provide comfort to people in nursing homes. And there's a real market for that.

Ms. NANCY CHILA (Director of nursing, Arleigh Burke Pavilion): I've kind of gotten attached to her, and I can see how people can get attached to her. I treat her like she's real.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: That's Nancy Chila. She's head of nursing at the Arleigh Burke Pavilion. She says they first got the robot in April to test it with about a dozen residents.

Ms. CHILA: If I walk down the hall, groups of people will stop. Residents will wave to have Ollie come over. And they actually remember her now, when she comes out.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: When they're interacting with Ollie, are they aware that Ollie is a robot?

Ms. CHILA: They are. They have said that they're aware that she's a robot, but they love her just the same.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, not everybody. Chila says one person was very agitated. But in general, this retirement community is enthusiastic.

What would be the advantage of this over just, say, a cat?

Ms. CHILA: Well, when I go home, I plug Ollie into the charger and turn him off and I leave for the weekend. Whereas a cat, you have to feed, you have to have a litter box, you have to take to the vet. Ollie just goes to sleep and we don't have worry about her until Monday.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: There's no need to worry because the robot is not alive. And some people say that's actually the problem.

Dr. BILL THOMAS (Aging studies, Erickson School at University of Maryland): One of the things that we've learned is that it is the unexpected and spontaneous behavior of the living creature that adds so much of the value to people's experience.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Bill Thomas is a physician and professor of aging studies at the Erickson School at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He says nursing homes can accommodate pets if they want to. In fact, he pioneered a reform movement in eldercare called the Eden Alternative. It involves filling older people's home with lots of animals, plants and children.

Dr. THOMAS: I can say with confidence that people in that reform movement really are not looking for a robot to solve our problems.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Even though if people are lonely and bored, he says almost any kind of novelty can get their attention.

Dr. THOMAS: I have no doubt that I could thrill a group of older people with a fur-covered robot. I know I can. But it doesn't solve anything. It doesn't solve the problem that is really causing their distress and their lack of enjoyment of life.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says, sure, caring for other living creatures takes work. It can sometimes be a hassle, but it also gives people a real emotional connection.

Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

SHAPIRO: You can see a video of the baby seal robot on our Web site: npr.org.

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