The Alabama Department of Senior Services and Commissioner Jean Brown received the 2022 Outstanding Community Service Award from the Southeastern Association of Area Agencies on Aging at its annual conference this week.
ADSS and Brown were honored for their nationally recognized robotic pet project started by ADSS to address social isolation among older Alabamians. The Middle Alabama Area Agency on Aging (M4A), on behalf of Area Agencies on Aging in Alabama (AAA), nominated Brown and ADSS for the award.
“I am honored to accept this award on behalf of our customers, family members and caregivers who have received the benefits these pets have provided,” Brown said. “Through this program, pets were offered comfort and companionship without the added costs or physical needs of live pets. ADSS has received many positive reports of how these robotic pets have helped seniors who want and need companionship and interaction during the pandemic.
The Outstanding Community Service Award was created by SE4A to recognize religious institutions, service agencies and organizations, civic clubs, and government departments that have made a positive contribution to the lives of older adults.
The ADSS launched the pilot program in 2020 using a federal grant to purchase 130 lifelike robotic pets – 10 for each of Alabama’s 13 AAAs. Robotic pets respond to owner’s voice and touch. Users can feel the pet’s heartbeat and the pet responds to the owner’s voice. After owning the animals for a year, a survey of participants showed a 69% decrease in feelings of loneliness and isolation. 101 additional pets were purchased by AAAs with federal dollars.
During the pandemic, there was a significant increase in the number of older adults who experienced social isolation and, as a result, also experienced a decline in social interaction and social support, Brown said. Prolonged isolation is known to have adverse effects on mental health and cognitive abilities, she added.
Researchers have linked social isolation in the elderly to loneliness, depression and increased premature mortality. Some studies show that social isolation has a greater impact on mortality than risk factors such as obesity and lack of physical activity. Additionally, studies show a direct link between social isolation and increased cognitive decline and dementia.
Governor Kay Ivey appointed Brown to serve as commissioner of the Department of Senior Services in 2019. ADSS is a cabinet-level state agency that administers programs for seniors, people with disabilities, and caregivers. ns, people with disabilities and caregivers.