January 1, 2016
Chi, N., Demiris, G., Thompson, H., Lazar, A., & Lin, S. (2016). The Usability of a Digital Companion Pet for Older Adults with Mild Cognitive Impairment. Gerontologist. 56 (Suppl_3): 566.
Pets positively impact the health of socially isolated older adults. Advances in artificial intelligence have created “digital pets”, which are applications designed to provide companionship for older adults who cannot own pets due to physical limitations or housing constraints. This study presents a qualitative analysis of a project with ten community-dwelling older adults with mild cognitive impairment who were invited to use a commercially available tablet-based digital pet for three months. The system provided a cat or dog avatar and had comprehensive functionalities including conversation ability, use of pictures, and reminders. We conducted a content analysis of exit interviews (n=8) to examine older adults’ attitudes towards digital pets. Most of the participants rated the experience as enjoyable. They stated that a digital pet could be a great companion for depressed and less active older adults. One participant felt disappointed because of the repetitive nature of the conversations, and another participant felt resentful because the pet sometimes interrupted daily activities. Some felt that it was hard to build a relationship because the digital pet does not look like a real pet, and cannot be held or fed. Participants enjoyed the reminders (e.g. for medication intake) and other functionalities (including storytelling and showing of pictures). Some participants had concerns with potential privacy issues, technical challenges, the cost of a digital pet, and development of dependence. The study demonstrated that a digital pet can provide companionship for older adults, but future studies need to examine design approaches and address socio-technical challenges.