Talking dolls seen as salve for elderly isolation

Kyodo

Talking dolls are gaining popularity among elderly people who live alone and may help stave off mental decline.

“After spending about a month with this boy, I started to feel affection for him and cannot leave him alone,” said Nobu Komatsu, 86, who lives by herself in Itabashi Ward, Tokyo, while patting her doll’s head.

A Tokyo-based maker of toys and daily goods called Partners Inc. developed the doll, which is supposed to represent a 5-year-old boy named Oshaberi Ma-kun (Talking Ma-kun). It can recognize certain words and give a limited range of responses in the recorded voice of a real 5-year-old boy.

The doll can have 19 different conversations. It will also speak out on its own once every 20 to 30 minutes, saying things like “I love you very much” or “Please pat my head,” if switched to monologue mode, according to Partners.

The doll sells for ¥18,000 and about 4,000 were sold in the first six months after its launch last November.

“I’m startled whenever he says to me ‘Please hold my hands’ or ‘Please hold me in your arms,’ ” said Komatsu, who spends most of her time alone.

“I guess this may help prevent me from suffering dementia,” she said. “Ever since Ma-kun came to spend time with me, I started to feel more positive and talk more often.”

Some experts have acknowledged that talking dolls can have positive effects on elderly people’s minds.

Kimihiro Yoneyama, a neurologist and writer familiar with medication for elderly people, said: “The act of uttering words is the easiest way to stimulate your brain.”

“It is more desirable to hold face-to-face conversations with other people, but the dolls may provide an alternative solution to those who are unable to do so very often.”

Other talking dolls on the market include T-Arts Co.’s Yumenoko Neruru (Child of Dream Neruru) that can sing 50 songs, Bandai Co.’s Primopuel that calls owners by their name or nickname, and Pip Co.’s Unazuki Kabochan (Nodding Kabo-chan).

Bandai said it originally developed Primopuel targeting women in their 20s, but the doll unexpectedly became popular among elderly people too.