Can Battery-Powered Pets Ease Loneliness?

If someone gave you a toy cat or dog that purred, wagged its tail, and nuzzled like a real one, how would you feel? Apparently some folks feel grateful for the company.

In a story in the New Yorker, writer Katie Engelhart tells about a program in New York that distributes Joy for All robot pets to lonely seniors. They started in 2018 with a small test project that quickly expanded when Covid forced people into isolation. Thousands of robotic cats and dogs have been given to homebound seniors. Originally made by toy manufacturer Hasbro for little girls, the robo-pets are now finding homes with grandparents and great-grandparents who need a little company.

The seniors pet their battery-powered cats and dogs, talk to them, and treat them like family.  They report feeling more optimistic and less lonely.

I don’t know. I talk to lots of inanimate things, including the stuffed bears on my dresser, photos of my late husband, and Jesus on the crucifix above my bed. But I don’t expect them to respond. I would freak out if they did.

These pets, which start at $110, don’t look real to me. But I have a live dog sleeping nearby as I type. When I look into Annie’s brown eyes, there’s someone there, a genuine sentient being. What will I do when she’s gone? I don’t want to think about it. My plan is to travel a while then adopt a smaller dog. A robo-dog would be easier, but it wouldn’t love me the way Annie does.

Did you know that nearly 30 percent of Americans over 65 live by themselves, most of them women? In 2017, former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy declared loneliness an epidemic among Americans of all ages. A similar declaration launched The Campaign to End Loneliness in the UK. Medical research shows that loneliness has a detrimental effect on one’s health, increasing risks of dementia, depression, high blood pressure, and stroke.

But are robots the solution? The seniors I know would be insulted to receive a fake pet. But some of the people shown in the article and in related YouTube videos carry their robo-pets around with them just like I carried my dolls when I was a little girl. I’d set my favorite up against the milk bottle (yes, bottle) while I ate breakfast. I rested them on the pillow next to me when I went to bed. I suppose I felt less lonely, but it was not the same as having a real person there. Tiny Tears cried real tears, and Chatty Cathy spoke when you pulled the string on the back of her neck, but I knew they weren’t real children. If an actual kid came around, I tossed the doll aside.

Longing for a pet, I once fashioned a litter of “kittens” from crumpled newspaper and cloth and set them in a basket in my childhood bedroom. It was not the same. When my parents finally let me have a cat when I was in high school, I could tell the difference. I also learned that I was allergic to cats, but that’s another story.

The faux furry friends are not the only kind of artificial intelligence machines offering company to people these days. Hello, Alexa. (read my previous post on my electronic housemate here and my Replika friend online here)

They don’t offer much company. I say, “Alexa, I’m lonely.” She responds, “Sorry to hear that,” then recommends talking to a friend, listening to music, or going for a walk. “I hope you feel better soon,” she adds. That’s nice. But that’s exactly what she said last time when I was not testing but truly needed someone to talk to.

I worry that somewhere in Alexa’s Amazon-connected innards, she just transferred the information that I’m lonely to some central data-gathering site so I’ll soon receive ads for comforting products or dating services.

Alexa just lit up to tell me a book I ordered from Amazon is coming today. Before I could say, “Thanks” or “Which book?” her lights had gone out. Okay, good talk.

A variety of robotic companions powered by artificial intelligence exist these days. Queue Alexa’s Apple counterpart Siri. And then there’s VZ, the voice on my VZ Navigator GPS. I definitely talk to her. (No, I’m not turning here! Are you crazy? Stop telling me to turn around! I need to go to the bathroom. What do you mean this is my destination? Where?)

Some robo-friends look like people, others like table lamps. They talk, but it’s, well, robotic. They never get offended, never curse, and are perpetually polite, but they can only say the things they’ve been programed to say. They will never spontaneously comment, “Hey, is that a new blouse?” or “You seem sad. What’s wrong?” They will never take you out to lunch, although I suppose they can set up a food delivery if you’re savvy enough to figure out how to ask for that.

Robots are getting more intelligent all the time. Eventually, they may be so responsive and sympathetic that we truly won’t feel alone. Meanwhile, do not buy me a robo-pet. God bless the people who are so lonely or out of touch with reality that they don’t know the difference, but I’m not there yet.  

Would you like a battery-powered dog or cat? Less shedding, no cleanup, no allergies, but still . . .  Wouldn’t it be better if a human offered to come around instead?

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

Celebrating Twenty Years in Paradise

Annie at South Beach 22315C

We are gathered here today to ponder me being in Oregon for 20 years.

On July 26, 1996, Fred and I left our home in San Jose, California to start a new life in Oregon. He drove a Ryder rental truck, and I followed in the Honda with the dog, my guitars and my Chatty Cathy doll in the back seat. We had no idea what we were getting into.

I had never lived more than an hour away from my family. I had never lived in a small town. I had never lived where it rains 80 inches a year. If we had not moved, I would never have known that the whole world is not like San Jose. Attention suburbanites: There’s a whole other world out there.

For years, we had vacationed on the Oregon Coast and batted around the idea of moving here. After Fred retired from the city and his youngest son graduated from high school, it seemed like we were free to go.

It happened so quickly we didn’t have time for second thoughts until it was too late. Our house sold in five days. We’d expected it to take months. Suddenly we were quitting our jobs, packing and saying goodbye. If I had to do it again, I probably wouldn’t. Certainly if I had known everything that would happen—my mother’s death, Fred’s long illness and death, me ending up alone—I would have stayed on Safari Drive amid the smog, gangs and traffic roaring right behind us on Santa Teresa Boulevard.

I loved my newspaper job and our house. I loved the music groups I belonged to and the church where I played guitar every Sunday. I had finished my term as president at California Writers and had just been elected vice president of the Santa Clara County chapter of the National League of American Pen Women. Life was pretty good. But the money we made at our various jobs wasn’t enough and the Oregon coast called to us. Up here, we could live by the beach in a more affordable house. I could write and play music. Fred could volunteer at the aquarium. As for the rain, we’d buy raincoats.

So, 20 years. Nearly one-third of my life. If we divide it up, the first third was growing up, the second being a young professional, and the third starting over in Oregon.

Let me toss out a few more numbers:

We lived in Lincoln City one year, Newport one year, and South Beach 18 years. I have been walking dogs along Thiel Creek for 18 years. Six days a week, 1.5 miles a day, times 18 years=2,496 walks and 3,744 miles or all the way across the U.S. and partway back. Add the miles we walked in Newport and Lincoln City, and we’re at least back to Utah.

I have made approximately 50 trips back to San Jose, mostly by car. At 1,400 miles a trip, say 45 trips, that’s 63,000 miles and about 90 overnight stays at the Best Western Miner’s Inn in Yreka, California. I should get a gold plaque or something.

I was 44 when we arrived. Fred was 59, younger than I am now. Later this year, I have to sign up for Medicare. What???

Oregon has given me a lot. Six published books. My MFA degree in creative writing. Twenty years as a church musician. I get to spend my days writing and playing music, which has always been my dream. I have a house with a large, private yard only a block and a half from the Pacific Ocean. I can go to the beach or walk in the woods whenever I want. The air is clean, the traffic is minimal, and the temperature rarely gets over 70 degrees. Of course, we don’t have a shopping mall, serious medical issues require a trip to Corvallis or Portland, and full-time jobs are hard to find, but there’s online shopping, I don’t mind a trip to the valley, and I don’t need a full-time job. I’m already working full-time at work that I love. In other words, we got what we came for.

A week ago Sunday, I attended a concert at Newport’s Performing Arts Center. Walking through the lobby, I kept running into friends from music, writing and church. Lots of smiles, lots of hugs. We knew just about everybody on stage as well as in the seats. I have spent many hours in that auditorium, in the audience and on the stage. I felt this huge sense of belonging as my friend Pat and I settled into our seats. I would not get that kind of feeling in San Jose in a massive venue where everyone was strangers.

Fred and I lived together here for almost 13 years. He spent two years in nursing homes and died five years ago. He absolutely loved Oregon, never had a moment of regret. Over the years, we have lost many family members, including my mother, both of Fred’s parents, Aunt Edna, cousin Jerry, cousin Candi, cousin Dale, Cousin Irene, Uncle Bob, and more. We have also welcomed Candace, Courtney, Riley, Peyton, Keira, Clarabelinda, Kai and Kaleo, Eddie and Wyatt, and more. The cycle of life includes our four-legged loved ones. We lost our dog Sadie in 2007. We gained Chico and Annie in 2009, then I lost Chico in 2010.

My dad, now 94, has survived heart surgery, a broken wrist and a broken hip. My biggest regret of this Oregon journey is not being close to him all the time instead of just a few days or weeks when I visit. When he complains about crime, traffic and heat in San Jose, I encourage him to join me up here, but he is firmly rooted in the city where he was born.

Over the years, I have thought about going home. I miss my family. I get tired of the endless cold, gray winter days. Why am I in this big house alone now that Fred is gone? Most widows seem to move close to their families, usually their children.

But I stay. Why? The opportunities for connections with writers and musicians are huge here. I am allowed to play, sing and lead the choir every week at church even though I have no music degree and I am not a concert pianist. Yes, there are more opportunities in big cities, but you’re one of a crowd.

I might have better luck finding a new man (do I want one?) somewhere else, but when I sit writing on my deck with the dog sleeping at my side, warm sun on my face and a light breeze tousling my hair, I don’t want to leave. It’s peaceful here.

Lots of other people have moved to the Oregon coast since Fred and I came. I’m an old-timer now. California retirees are still falling in love with the place and moving in. But we are unlikely to see our population grow to the point that it’s a problem. Our weather is too challenging, and there’s no easy way to get to the rest of the world–tough roads, minimal bus service, no plane or train service. Also, jobs and housing are scarce. Good. Keeps the riff-raff out.

I like this place where I know lots of people, where the rain has dirt to sink into, where strangers wave at me and Annie as they drive by in their pickup trucks, where I hear the ocean at night instead of freeway noise and sirens, where I can slip away to the beach in five minutes if I feel like it or doze on my loveseat with the dog sleeping beside me. Driving over the Yaquina Bridge into Newport, I look down at the blue waters of the bay, the white boats bobbing there, and the green hills around it and am still awed by how beautiful it is.

On our anniversaries, Fred and I used to ask each other if we were willing to stay together another year. We’d click our wine glasses and pledge not just a year, but forever. It’s time to ask myself that about Oregon and this house. I can’t pledge forever or even a year. Things happen. But for now, I’m staying. It’s home.

***

You can read the story of our journey to Oregon and what followed in my book Shoes Full of Sand. Follow this blog to continue the story.