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“Oh, you are so good:” Virtual dog offers “unconditional love” to elderly

Meet GeriJoy. He’s a virtual dog. He’s a talking dog. He’s even described as “a compassionate” dog.

He was developed by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to be an interactive companion for older people with dementia or memory problems, serving to provide what his makers call “continual stimulation.”

We’d be the first to recite all the wondrous things contact with a dog can do for the old, lonely, troubled and institutionalized and, using my own father as an example, we have, repeatedly.

But there’s something about GeriJoy, noble as the idea may be, that I find a little bit patronizing, a little bit insulting, and highly phony. His creation also seems an awfully circuitous and robotic route to take to provide a virtual experience with an animated creature when the real thing is so abundantly available.

Clearly, I’m cynical, or at least wary, when it comes to technology — and perhaps more. It was only yesterday, after all,  that I cruelly bashed soft and fuzzy stuffed animals.

gerijoy-300x170My point, then and now, is that, unlike with sugar, there is no substitute for the real thing when it comes to dogs.

Despite that, techno-wizards keep trying, intent, it seems, on trying to capture a no-shed, no-drool, no bark, no worries version of dog — be it stuffed, virtual, or mechanical — and then convince you that their inanimate, or animated, object will love you unconditionally forever.

The truth is, close as they might come — and cloning probably comes closest — they never will. Ha ha. Take that.

If GeriJoy, the virtual dog, is making some old person happy, even if it’s a delusional kind of happy, we’re all for it. If it’s being used as a substitute for human attention, we’re not. With all the growth in and demands on senior services and facilities for the elderly, there’s a tendency to look for quick and easy shortcuts, when the keys to doing job right are already obvious — caring staff, ample staff, staff with hearts.

And maybe some dogs — real dogs.

What I’d rather see is not a nursing home where dozens of residents are lined up in wheelchairs, stroking animated images on their hand held devices, but one that’s taking advantage of programs — or even creating some — in which dog ownership among residents is encouraged, and assistance with those dogs is provided; ones where dogs live under communal ownership, or short of that, therapy dogs visit regularly; one that’s investing in building a qualified and caring staff, as opposed to investing in devices that substitute for real human, or dog, contact.

Here’s how the GeriJoy website touts the product: “Have an older loved one who is lonely and suffers from dementia or geriatric depression? GeriJoy can help. We provide talking pets that are intelligent, compassionate, and available 24/7 to talk about anything, including photos and updates from family.”

The virtual dog can be displayed on a computer or other Internet-connected device. The virtual dog, the website claims, “provides all the availability and unconditional love of an adorable pet, combined with the ability to talk with true intelligence and compassion … It’s as if it lives inside a picture frame, so you get the benefits of pet therapy without any smells, allergies, cleaning up, bites, or food and veterinary bills.”

The virtual dog can provide around the clock stimulation, his developers say, and, in the video snippet above, GeriJoy certainly sounds stimulating, or stimulated, almost orgasmically so. “Oh, you’re so good,” GeriJoy coos as an elderly man strokes the image on the screen.

We’re not sure if that’s what GeriJoy told the Senate Special Committee on Aging’s Healthy Aging Forum this month when he appeared before it. He’ll also be on exhibit at the AARP Health Innovation@50+ Tech Expo on May 31 at the Las Vegas Convention Center, according to the AARP blog.

To get GeriJoy, one must subscribe, and pay from $99 to $129 a month. The hardware costs up to $349 for the most sophisticated, Internet-connected version.

GeriJoy was co-founded by Victor Wang, a former Canadian Army officer who did research on human-machine interaction for NASA while at MIT. He says he was inspired to develop the virtual dog by his grandmother in Taiwan, who became depressed while she was living alone.

Wang says GeriJoy can even serve as a watchdog. In one case, a user’s human caregiver was being verbally abusive, and GeriJoy “contacted the user’s daughter to let her know about it.”

“Whatever your loved one wants to know, the companion can find out and report back,” the website says. “It can send and receive messages and photos between you and your loved one, also via the Internet. All this is done through the intuitive metaphor of a talking dog. Your loved one doesn’t even need to know what a computer is.”

We don’t care if the day comes when a virtual dog can cook dinner, push a wheelchair, administer medications or help you understand your health insurance.

A real dog is better — even with his shedding and drooling. Real dogs bring one into, and keep one in, the moment. Real dogs can help you keep a grip on reality, as opposed to pulling you into fantasy land. And real dogs offer a true form of love and validation — even if they can’t say, at least with words, “Oh, you are so good.”


Comment from KateH
Time May 24, 2013 at 10:05 am

I’d bet that in almost every case of a lonely senior, a caring pet owner who lived within 5 to 10 miles could be found, who would be glad to come by 2 or 3 times a week for a visit, for the small fee of $10 for gas and treats. That would cost the same as the techpet, and would be far friendlier and mentally healthy.

Comment from debbie
Time May 24, 2013 at 1:28 pm

I agree totally with your opinion about this new technology John. What’s disturbing to me however is that I think it will become more of a new device for young people than the elderly. It seems that when new technology is introduced it’s introduced as a life changing ( and positive ) benefit, so in order for this company to accomplished that, I’m sure the theory was to market to the elderly so that most people would agree that something like GeriJoy , is a remarkable idea that has the potential to increase the elderly’ standard of living, and who could argue with that. And for all the reasons you’ve stated in this article, not many people could phantom the very dark side of this new pocket pet device and its possibility of attempting to replace human contact and love. And while many people could ( and would ) debate that for many people in these facilitates ( who don’t have or have little human contact and love now, why not Geijoy? ) and again, I would tend to agree, But what about my theory that GeriJoy could very well become the new trend of pet ownership/guardianship among young people? What would happen to the growing trend among young people to adopt and rescue? What happens to the Pet industry and culture…. a 55 billion dollar a year industry…. Another huge chuck of jobs disappearing? Again, this Gerijoy is more disturbing, at least to me, than meets the eye…as, I’m a bettin’ that it will be the young generation that will embrace this new device…and in my humble… that ain’t a good thing…

Comment from debbie
Time May 24, 2013 at 1:36 pm

I forgot to add this John, and think it plays a lot into this scenario …..

Or what about those occasional instances and stories we read about of heroic efforts , miracles if you will, when the animal companion risks its life to save their loved ones.. That is work of the heart and soul, and we all need to connect with stories such as this as much as possible because it gives back the feeling that there is a ‘beyond’ out there , something bigger than ourselves, that we are connected to nature… I personally believe that our animal companion’s teach us those lessons, everyday… They serve as guides to a magical place of lighearteness and childlike wonder…a place we can go to let go of all the worries of our weary everyday… We need more and more of that connection back to that magical place than we know.. Could Gerijoy replace that ? Again, this Gerijoy is more disturbing, at least to me, than meets the eye…..

Comment from vida
Time May 24, 2013 at 5:29 pm

I find this really disturbing, I”m pretty sure a therapy dog making rounds or a neighbors animal are a good thing for the elderly and alone. I’m also sure an imaginary friend doesn’t offer real love like an actual friend. More actual contact and less pretend is the way to go.

Comment from Anne’n’Spencer
Time May 25, 2013 at 9:09 am

It’s no substitute for actual human and animal contact. Oddly enough, if they’d marketed it as an enjoyable game to stimulate the mind, I might have thought it had a place.

If there are people out there who think spending all that money on hardware an an app is going to do anything at all for loneliness in the elderly, demented or otherwise, I have four words for you: GO SEE YOUR MOM. (Take your dog or cat with you.)

Comment from Dog Boarding Toronto
Time May 27, 2013 at 5:02 pm

Not sure if I would get the same feeling from a virtual dog. We have two real ones and love them more than life itself!

Comment from manuel
Time May 28, 2013 at 4:23 am

Of course the AKC and breeders would hate this app because of loss revenue.