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 launched by ADSS to combat social isolation in older Alabamians. The Middle Alabama Area Agency on Aging (M4A), on behalf of the 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 clients, family members, and caregivers who received the benefits these pets provided,” Brown said. “Through this program, the pets offered comfort and companionship without additional costs and physical needs of live pets. ADSS received numerous positive reports about how these robotic pets helped seniors who wanted and needed companionship and interaction during the pandemic.”
The Outstanding Community Service Award was established by SE4A to recognize religious institutions, service agencies and organizations, civic clubs, and governmental departments that have made positive contributions to the lives of older people.
ADSS launched the pilot program in 2020 using a federal grant to purchase 130 life-like robotic pets — 10 for each of Alabama’s 13 AAAs. The robotic pets react to the owner’s voice and touch. Users can feel the animal’s heartbeat, and it responds to the owner’s voice. After owning the pets for a year, a survey of participants showed a 69% decrease in the feelings of loneliness and isolation. An additional 101 pets were purchased by AAAs with federal dollars.
During the pandemic, there has been a significant increase in the number of older adults who have experienced social isolation and, therefore, also experienced declines in social interaction and social support, Brown said. Prolonged isolation is known to adversely affect mental health and cognitive ability, she added.
Researchers have linked social isolation in older adults to loneliness, depression, and increased premature mortality. Some studies show 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 increases in cognitive decline and dementia.
Governor Kay Ivey appointed Brown to serve as the Commissioner of the Department of Senior Services in 2019. ADSS is a cabinet-level state agency that administers programs for senior citizens, people with disabilities, and caregivers.ns, people with disabilities, and caregivers.