Katie Engelhart at The New Yorker: “…In 2017, the Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, declared loneliness an “epidemic” among Americans of all ages. This warning was partly inspired by new medical research that has revealed the damage that social isolation and loneliness can inflict on a body. The two conditions are often linked, but they are not the same: isolation is an objective state (not having much contact with the world); loneliness is a subjective one (feeling that the contact you have is not enough). Both are thought to prompt a heightened inflammatory response, which can increase a person’s risk for a vast range of pathologies, including dementia, depression, high blood pressure, and stroke. Older people are more susceptible to loneliness; forty-three per cent of Americans over sixty identify as lonely. Their individual suffering is often described by medical researchers as especially perilous, and their collective suffering is seen as an especially awful societal failing….
So what’s a well-meaning social worker to do? In 2018, New York State’s Office for the Aging launched a pilot project, distributing Joy for All robots to sixty state residents and then tracking them over time. Researchers used a six-point loneliness scale, which asks respondents to agree or disagree with statements like “I experience a general sense of emptiness.” They concluded that seventy per cent of participants felt less lonely after one year. The pets were not as sophisticated as other social robots being designed for the so-called silver market or loneliness economy, but they were cheaper, at about a hundred dollars apiece.
In April, 2020, a few weeks after New York aging departments shut down their adult day programs and communal dining sites, the state placed a bulk order for more than a thousand robot cats and dogs. The pets went quickly, and caseworkers started asking for more: “Can I get five cats?” A few clients with cognitive impairments were disoriented by the machines. One called her local department, distraught, to say that her kitty wasn’t eating. But, more commonly, people liked the pets so much that the batteries ran out. Caseworkers joked that their clients had loved them to death….(More)”.