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dementia companion pets robotic Gillingham Anne Kings
Anne Kings with a companion pet cat and her real dog Betty.

The Covid pandemic and resulting lockdowns hampered existing work to help people with dementia in Gillingham, but also led to the success of robotic ‘companion pets’ to bring comfort to those with the disease.

Anne Kings, a member of the Dementia Friendly Gillingham committee, told the Annual Town Assembly this week how the idea for the robotic animals has not just become a hit here but has spread to other parts of the country too.

She told the online meeting on Wednesday that many of the existing initiatives to help people with dementia had to stop when the lockdowns were announced and that the town’s Dementia Champions were forced to look around for other options.

‘It was … recognised that there was a big need for something to help those people with dementia, and other related illnesses, who were isolated in their own homes, and these were people who would never ever have been able to communicate with any form of technology,’ Anne told the meeting.

She said that pets are known to help calm people with dementia-related illnesses and so the champions decided to adopt robotic pet therapy, which she said had been proven to reduce stress.

As a result the Gillingham Dementia Friendly committee bought ten robotic ‘companion pets’ – priced £100 to £130 each – and six others were kindly donated by other people.

‘These pets feel and behave perfectly real; when the owner sleeps then they sleep, but with a gentle purr and the rise and fall of their body as though they are breathing,’ said Anne.

‘When the person wakes and talks to them or strokes them, then they wake, they turn to look at you when you talk to them, meow, lick their paws, and will even turn over to expect their tummy rubbed.  

‘Each pet is perfectly weighted to help “ground” the person. Grounding is the technique of adding weight or pressure to the body to increase feelings of security and safety and lower the production of cortisol – the hormone produced when we are faced with a “fight or flight” situation,’ she told the meeting.

After the pets were bought an appeal was made for people to nominate a person who they thought would benefit from owning one. ‘Gillingham Medical Practice were now realising the benefits and signposting people to us to try this therapy,’ said Anne.

She added: ‘If it hadn’t been for Covid this would never have happened. This has to be one of the most amazing things we have done in Gillingham, and in a funny sort of way we have created more dementia awareness than we could ever have imagined; but more importantly we have got to people we were never aware of before, but need our help.’

As a result more people have come forward to donate to buy more ‘companion pets’. Recently a puppy and cat were donated by women at Gillingham Inner Wheel from the money they raised by making face masks.

‘This success story of this “Pet Project” has reached all parts of the UK and the Channel Islands, and it’s put Gillingham firmly on the map,’ said Anne Kings.

‘I have been contacted by the London Borough of Islington, and the Welsh Dementia Action Alliance, to address their committees as they want to carry out this project themselves.’

Anne also spoke about the other work done in Gillingham for those with dementia, including the making of therapeutic ‘twiddle lap blankets’ and ‘twiddle muffs’ by volunteers.

*Anyone wanting to know about the work of the town’s Dementia Champions can contact Anne on 01747 837908, or by email [email protected]

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