Last week, our systematic review of the experiences and effects of robopets for older adults living in residential care was published in the International Journal of Older People Nursing. We had always thought that there could be some media interest in the study… after all who wouldn’t be curious about small robot animals that mimic the sounds and movements of a real life pet ?.. but we were not quite prepared for the media frenzy and excitement that was about to happen.

The review originated from a care home forum held as part of the PenCLAHRC research prioritisation process – aiming to understand important issues for those working in care homes.  One of the attendees was curious about the role of animal therapy in care homes. As we started our scoping of the topic, we realised that nested within animal therapy, was a whole subsection of robotic companion animals that had been trialled in residential care. And so the robopets review was born!  (a review into the effect of live animals in residential care is ongoing).

Noreen and PARO (2)

And so, as the day of the online publication loomed, our wonderful press officer Lou helped us draft our press release, and we waited to see if anyone would take the bait.  There were initial thoughts that maybe Sky News would be interested, and perhaps even BBC Breakfast…but these didn’t come to anything and on the morning of the eve of publication day we had resigned ourselves to the story perhaps just featuring on our University News site and maybe a few people referring to it from there… and then… KaBOOM!!!

Phone rings: Becca, are you available for a live interview for BBC Radio Devon?… Sure!

Email: Becca – would you be able to talk to ‘Tom from Times’?…Absolutely – would love to!

Phone rings: Becca – it’s Lou. Could you talk with Kaye Adams from BBC Radio Scotland tomorrow lunchtime?  Of course… (they didn’t tell me at the time that I would be ‘up against’ a dog walker… but I have to say, I think I even heard the dog walker at the end of the ‘debate’ agreed that she could see how robopets could be of value for some).

…and so it went on. Two days later, we had done 2 live interviews, 3 recorded interviews, 5 ‘chats’ with journalists, and news outlets far and wide were picking up on the story. It became a debating point on several shows, my favourite of which was the conversation on BBC Radio 2 between Steve Wright and his colleagues Janey and Tim. If Steve thinks it’s a ‘great idea’ – we must be onto a winner ! LBC radio also ran a live phone-in debate – and there were plenty of callers sharing their views both for and against the idea of robopets in the lives of older adults.

What did I learn about talking with the media? I learnt from having to dive into the deep-end – that it was really important to have 3 or 4 simple points. For our review these were:

  • Robopets can increase the health and well-being of older adults living in residential care through encouraging social interactions
  • Residents living with dementia as well as those without dementia who interacted with the robopets experienced comfort and joy
  • Robopets are not a replacement for human interaction – they should be seen as a possible addition
  • Robopets may not be for everyone

I learnt that it got easier, in fact the more I did, the more I realised that I should be comfortable talking about it as the knowledge was all in my head.

And most importantly – I learnt that engaging with the media, as daunting as it seems – is something we should strive to do more often. Getting our work cited by others is an important part of academic life, but getting the messages from our research out to those that may engage with it has to move beyond the academic silos. Did we get our message out there this time? I think we did!  Yesterday, a member of the public phoned me – she had heard the interview on BBC Radio Devon – and thought a robopet might just be the thing she had been looking for.

Abbott, ROrr, NMcGill, PRebecca Whear MSc, Alison Bethel PGDip, Ruth Garside PhD, Ken Stein MD, Jo Thompson‐Coon PhD. How do “robopets” impact the health and well‐being of residents in care homes? A systematic review of qualitative and quantitative evidenceInt J Older People Nurs2019;e12239.