Wakefield Rotary club campaign to help isolation - How robotic cats improve lives

It has long been recognised that caring for and interacting with a pet can be therapeutic - especially for those living with mental illness.

Thursday, 16th September 2021, 9:53 am
Updated Thursday, 16th September 2021, 9:54 am
Sheila Wainwright and Peter Clarke  -president of Wakefield Rotary with the robotic cats. Picture Scott Merrylees
Sheila Wainwright and Peter Clarke -president of Wakefield Rotary with the robotic cats. Picture Scott Merrylees

Cats in particular, with their purring and willingness to be stroked, can ease tension, make people feel calmer, more positive and less anxious.

Owning a cat, dog or other pet can really help elderly people combat social isolation.

Sheila Wainwright, a retired headteacher from Woolley knows this more than most.

When she was caring for her husband John, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2004, he became increasingly violent, scared and confused.

One day their cat jumped up on his knee and he started stroking it. He instantly became calmer and his whole demeanour changed.

Mrs Wainwright realised just how important the cat was to her husband’s well-being.

Some years after her husband’s death, Mrs Wainwright, who, at the time, was president of the Rotary Club of Wakefield, attended a dementia conference in Kirklees and came across a table full of robotic cats.

The cats, sold by an American company Joy For All, are remarkably lifelike. The built-in sensors mean they purr and meow when stroked and even lift a paw and open their mouths.

They look and respond like a real cat and the synthetic fur, which comes in a number of different colours, is lovely and soft and is inspired by real-life cats

Mrs Wainwright, borrowed one of the cats and began to take it around with her when giving talks on dementia.

It was an instant success and she approached the Rotary club with a view to making it their next fund-raising project.

Fellow Rotarian Peter Clarke contacted the company distributing the cats and agreed a deal to source them at a reduced cost through Amazon and the campaign got underway.

Coincidentally, at that time, the BBC were asking for people to write in with suggestions of a suitable small-scale project that could make a important change to someone’s life.

It was for a series called Let’s Get a Good Thing Going and featured four local people pitching ideas to help their community.

Mrs Wainwright and the cats were chosen to appear on the programme.

She said: “The filming was over two-and-a-half days and culminated in spending a day at Ossett Town Hall demonstrating the cats’ abilities and describing our project to the audience.”

After the show was aired in 2017 the response was overwhelming and she received letters from all over the country requesting more information and sending in donations.

Mrs Wainwright said: “I even had an envelope addressed to the Robotic Cat Lady near Wakefield.”

To date the Rotary Club of Wakefield has distributed around 400 cats and fundraising continues at a pace.

Recently a generous local benefactor, who wishes to remain anonymous, has donated £10,000 to the campaign and Wakefield Community Service has given a further £3,000 to enable the Rotary club to buy more cats for distribution in the community.

Mrs Wainwright said: “Lockdown during the past 18 months has meant that so many more elderly and vulnerable people have been plunged into loneliness and despair.

“We hope that by providing them with one of these cats it can go some way to ease their loneliness and we’d like to hear from anyone who would benefit.”

Mrs Wainwright can be contacted on [email protected]