Program by Bronx-based RiverSpring Health Plans alleviates loneliness, provides companionship for New Yorkers

NEW YORK—A mechanical pet program designed to help seniors stave off feelings of loneliness and isolation has provided a timely Valentine’s Day companion for one local woman. 
Ruth Mensch, 90, was gifted the lifelike pooch by her nurse care manager after she noticed she could use a pick-me-up. The golden pup responds similarly to a real canine, barking, stretching and changing positions in response to being stroked.
“She’s lots of fun,” Mensch said. “She barks when you don’t expect and does more than we expected when we first got it. We never know when this will happen.” 
Mensch, who lives on the Upper West Side, dubbed the golden pup “Georgina” after one of her beloved Westies. Georgina arrived courtesy of the Bronx-based RiverSpring Health Plans, which provides managed long-term care services to more than 18,000 members in New York City, Long Island and Westchester County. 
Ellen Mensch, Ruth’s daughter, surprised her mother with Georgina several weeks ago.
“I had my mom close her eyes and I put Georgina on her chest,” Ellen Mensch said. “She opened her eyes and was beside herself. It’s so realistic looking.”
RiverSpring’s robopet program is designed to help members cope with loneliness and isolation without the challenge of caring for living pets.
"Since introducing our robopet program, we’ve distributed more than 40 pets,” said Patty Hron vice president of member services at RiverSpring. “It’s a great way to bring joy to our members and really demonstrates the dedication and attention to detail that is provided by our nurse care managers.”
Hron said RiverSpring has seen an uptick in social isolation since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, and emerging studies have revealed the connection between loneliness and a person’s overall health.
“We’ve found that since introducing our robopet program, our calls for assistance are down, complaints of loneliness have decreased and members are delighted,” Hron said. “Robopets like Georgina have a therapeutic effect that can be nurturing and healing. We’re so happy to have brightened Ruth’s Valentine’s Day.”
From distributing robopets to forming men’s clubs to help older male patients stave off loneliness and isolation, to providing air conditioners to plan members struggling with devastating heat, RiverSpring has been an innovative source of care and support for years.
For Mensch, taking on Georgina was a natural fit: She’s been a lifelong dog lover and also has a pet parrot, who has taken to imitating Georgina’s random barks.
“They start talking to each other,” Ellen said. “We need a couple more animals in the room and we’ll have a kennel here.”
Ruth can’t wait until spring when she can bring Georgina outside to join her neighbors’ daily dog meetup.
“She’s a very good dog,” Ruth said. “She’s like a good piece of candy or soda—I get a good feeling in my stomach.”