Credit Andrew B. Myers for The New York Times. Prop stylist: Emily Mullin.
Not long ago, a notable pet psychic told me that my cat might be possessed. There may be some truth to this. Whenever my cat hears the sound of a voice on speakerphone, she runs into the room with the fires of hell behind her eyes and sinks her teeth into my leg. Movie night in my home has become a twisted Pavlovian exercise, with my hand hovering above the mute button just in case a character needs to, for whatever reason, talk on a phone.
Cat love is blithe and mysterious, like an old spy novel with more puking. Nevertheless, I am powerless but to adore my troubled and possibly haunted cat, which is why I have become increasingly intrigued by my grandmother’s robot cat — part of a new line of companion pets, Joy for All, from Hasbro.
Since the turn of the century, companion pets, known in the medical community as socially assistive robots, have emerged as therapeutic devices for use in elder-care facilities around the world. The most famous of these is Paro, the $ 6,000 Class II medical device dissembling as a fuzzy baby harp seal. The robot’s designers purposely selected an exotic animal as a model, betting wisely that most people have never cradled a baby harp seal in their arms before. The humble Joy for All faces the altogether greater challenge of mimicking a house cat, that almost-tamed species known and admired for its cavalier relationship with logic.
My 91-year-old grandmother used to spin the world under her feet before she began her descent into dementia about three years ago. When I paid her a visit earlier this year at her memory-care facility in Florida, I had to reintroduce myself as her grandson. We walked to her cozy room at the back of the house, where there were photos of her five children hanging on the wall, labeled clearly with names and addresses. There, atop her dresser, perched an orange robot cat, staring out across the room in rigor mortis, blurring the previously unblurred line between cute and dead. My grandmother calls it Kitty.
Best place to pet a cat: Upper cheek, between ear and eye.
Worst place to pet a cat: Lower back near tail.
Now, I respect modern science, but it has yet to really nail the robot cat. Kitty’s unfortunate taxidermic quality derives from its complex mechanical innards, which allow it to twist over on its back so you can pet its abnormally firm tummy. It meows, but unlike with a real cat, the message always seems clear: a baldfaced, come-hither demand for petting. It purrs thanks to something the instruction manual refers to as the VibraPurr, as if to distinguish it from a wider world of fake purring technology. There are four sensors on its body that respond differently to touch; a light sensor that will send it to sleep; and an unsettling on-off switch accessible by a hatch in its fur.
As bizarre as the Joy for All is, it served as a bridge between me and my grandmother during my visit. The gap between her reality and real reality is so vast that our conversations have become disorienting drives through the English language, with the road eventually disappearing behind us. The truth of loving someone with dementia is that the further you drift from each other, the less you are able to express that yearning in words. Our sentences tend to be bookended with long silences and little fits of anger and resignation.
But when my grandmother ran her hand along Kitty’s faux fur, and I saw that smile overtake her face, something changed. Our relationship is burdened by her lack of memory, but hers with Kitty is freed by it. It is simple and without friction, just four sensors and some proprietary purring technology. This cat stuffed full of wires, this stupid animatronic doll, this unnerving simulation came into her life to mimic memory, not to create new ones. But somehow this thing allows her to glide into the present like a debutant. She was finally there with me, laughing, enjoying herself; the grandmother I hadn’t seen in years had arrived in order to care for the robot cat. Her happiness filled the room, and I stood in awe, subordinate to synthetic love.
I still struggle to process exactly what I felt watching my grandmother hold Kitty on her lap. Was I jealous of this robot cat’s ability to make her happy? Was it justifiable to feel sad that she was unable to care for a real cat? It’s one of dementia’s cruelest collateral effects, where even everyday experiences leave you punch drunk and emotionally drained. I thought of my own cat and of all the times I’ve clambered up on the couch to fend her off with a throw pillow, only to look into her eyes with total misunderstanding and total adoration.
Sometimes life requires us to broker deals with forces that we can’t understand. In my grandmother’s world, there are few constants except for this robot cat, and I am eternally grateful for its existence. Her relationship to it makes about as much sense as my relationship to my (possibly haunted) cat. Yet in these misunderstandings, we each have found a new love, one that relies on the certainty of the present, not the burden of the past. It asks us to cede control of our own reality so that we can best care for someone, or something, apart from ourselves. In this abyss lies the crux of cat love, robotic or otherwise: Inscrutable yet miraculous.