August-September 2018 | Features

Robotic cats – helping support dementia

Robotic cats – helping support dementia

Sheila Wainwright knows all too well the devastating impact of watching a loved one endure dementia. Now, she has discovered how a cute, robotic cat can make all the difference. Here is her story.

Seven years ago my husband John, a staunch Rotarian, died with early onset dementia.

Caring for him for seven years and dealing with increasing violence, prior to being sectioned, I became aware how there is little support in the NHS for carers of people with dementia.

At a time when I was feeling particularly low, it was suggested that I ring an Admiral Nurse; a trained, mental health nurse supported by charitable donations to Dementia UK.  I cannot describe the comfort, advice and dedication that nurse provided for me.

After John’s death, I spent time and energy raising money to provide Admiral Nurses in Wakefield.

An initial fund-raiser, “A Night to Remember Ball”, raised £15,000. After this my club, the Rotary Club of Wakefield, other local Rotary clubs, Inner Wheel, as well as other groups, began to fund-raise.

Now, after six long years of begging and pleading, with dozens of awareness- raising talks, £110,000 in the pot, it has been possible to fund the first Admiral Nurse. This will soon be followed by two more, one of whom will be based at the local hospice.

But that’s not the end of the story. I attended a dementia conference in Kirklees in West Yorkshire, when I saw a table with several cats on it. Curiously, I discovered that these were robotic cats sold by an American company, to provide comfort for people with dementia.

I borrowed one and began to show it to groups when I was giving a talk.

Run on batteries, the cats are hugely realistic. They miaow, roll over, purr, lick their paws and bring a smile to anyone who sees them. And, what’s more, they don’t need feeding or litter trays!

The response from people everywhere was amazing with so many asking me to buy them a cat, I couldn’t cope!

Encouraged by a fellow Rotarian, who had found another article about the value of these cats, I began to think what a good project this would be for Rotarians to take on board.

I remembered how, when John was violent, our little cat often jumped on his knee and he would begin to stroke her. She seemed to give him peace and calm.

Run on batteries, the cats are hugely realistic. They miaow, roll over, purr, lick their paws and bring a smile to anyone who sees them. And, what’s more, they don’t need feeding or litter trays.”

Already, the robotic cats have been on television. The BBC was asking for people to write in with small projects with big outcomes, and as a result I appeared on the BBC1 show Let’s Get a Good Thing Going in December with the cat – now named Snowball by a little boy who wanted one for his birthday!

I endured two-and-a-half days filming, including spending a day at Ossett Town Hall describing our project in front of an audience and showing off the cat’s talents. Now I know what Dragons’ Den feels like!

The responses after the programme were astonishing. I was overwhelmed by people writing from all over the country, as well as from Spain, all requesting information about the cats and asking how they could obtain one.

I even had an envelope addressed to ‘The Robotic Cat Lady near Wakefield’!

And there were many donations from people who said they had watched the programme and wanted to give something towards buying a cat for someone who would enjoy having one.

I contacted the agent at Hasbro and did a deal which meant the cats we wanted would be sold through Amazon at £99.99, with no postage costs.

There are 3,800 people diagnosed with dementia in my home town of Wakefield, with a further 1,000 undiagnosed. Many were living at home, alone and lonely.

So I thought, what if we could persuade schools through a talk in assembly to raise money for one cat? We could then ask one of the Admiral Nurses to identify someone who would gain comfort from a gift of a cat and hopefully a relationship could be built with the school.

Here we were now, addressing social isolation as well as raising awareness of the needs for people with dementia.

And what about businesses?

Already an association in Wakefield is showing interest in providing a grant to buy cats to donate.

As an Ambassador for Rotarians Easing Problems of Dementia (REPoD), it occurred to me what an excellent project this would be for Rotary to pursue nationwide.

We could encourage every Rotary club in the country to raise enough money to buy at least one cat.

Wouldn’t that make a difference to so many people with so little effort?

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