How tech is changing how we care for dementia patients

Nick Beaumont

28 Aug 2020

Imagine one morning you wake up, and you can’t remember your wife’s name.

It’s not a big deal – your brain is often slow in the mornings. But over time, you realise little things escape you more regularly. You walk into rooms and can’t remember why. You find it hard to keep up with conversations. And the TV remote completely stumps you.

Then there’s an accident. You get separated from your wife in a department store. You wander around confused. Your mind can’t latch onto anything recognisable. The world begins to spin, and your wife finds you sobbing outside the store entrance two hours later.

If before was a slippery slope, now you’re in freefall.

Suddenly, it’s not just your wife’s name you can’t remember. Friends, relatives, even your own children – none of them ring a bell. Dates, times, and spelling all overwhelm you. Your wife starts writing post-it notes to remind you to do things while she is as work: clean the windows, vacuum the floor, eat your lunch. You can’t read any of them.

Now you can’t dress yourself. You can’t shower yourself. You think your dying every time you go to the toilet. You can’t remember any words accept the ones you learned when you were two years old. Your descent can be charted by your declining scrabble scores.

And then it all ends in the middle of the night. You wake up in a delirium and start lashing out, accidentally hitting your terrified wife. The police come before the ambulance. You’re taken away from home and put in a hotel-like room.

From then on, you never see a face you recognise again.

For the 850 million people in the UK with dementia, this isn’t imagination – it’s reality. One in nine of us over the age of 65 suffer from Alzheimer’s. And although everybody’s story is unique, the one thing tying them together is the need for compassionate, personalised care.

In terms of finding a cure, we’re making great strides – and that’s partly down to technology. But asides from eradicating the disease, technology is proving hugely beneficial in helping care for patients.

Tech that cares

Those that have dementia already have a plethora of innovations to assist in helping them in their daily lives – ranging from the novel to the high tech.

Think simplified TV remotes, one-button radios designed to look like 1950 wirelesses, even toilet seats coloured to reduce disorientation when patients enter a bathroom. In tech, we often talk about the internet of things. But as we engineer living spaces to be more accessible, it’d be more accurate to call it the dementia of things!

Innovations designed specifically to assist with care can be broadly grouped together under the label ‘technology enabled care services’. Surprisingly though, an increasing amount of people are finding utility in common consumer smart devices. In particular, virtual assistants.

Devices like Amazon Echo and Google Home were never specifically designed to assist with caring. But they are undeniably useful. Their zero touch-interface means people can perform a number of tasks without having to touch a button – everything from making a phone call to checking the weather.

Virtual assistants are even more useful when combined with IoT technology. Smart thermostats, lightbulbs and televisions overcome the challenges of dials, switches and buttons, and give dementia patients a degree of control over their lives which would otherwise be forever lost.

Virtual assistants can also work in tandem with human carers, who can set reminders to take medicine, record voice samples to play to sooth anxiety, or even set the television to be switched on. And aside from anything else, simply having a constant presence in the house (albeit a virtual one) has been shown to fight loneliness.

And all of that is just virtual assistants’ out-the-box functionality.

Third party plugins and ‘skills’ are being developed to equip virtual assistants with even more tools to care for those with dementia.

My Carer for example is an Alexa skill that can be programmed by carers or those with early-stage dementia. It not only reminds people to do everyday tasks, but also takes them through the individual steps necessary to do it.

If, for example, it’s time to take their medicine, the skill will instruct patients where to find their pills, where to find a glass, how to fill the glass with water, and how many pills to swallow. If any of these tasks are left incomplete for more than 30 minutes, a notification is sent to the individual’s real-life carer or family member so they can intervene.

One of the biggest challenges to care is patience. The ability to answer the same trivial-sounding questions time and time again, even when the patient is frustrated, angry, upset, or violent. Virtual assistants are endlessly calm and compassionate. And while they can never replace a human, they remain an important tool to augment their care.

My Carer is free to use. And with 20% of UK households already having a virtual assistant, it’s a tool almost a quarter of us can use right away.

A compassionate future

So where is the future of dementia care going?

The Gloucester Smart House provides one vision of how a dementia patient’s home environment can be augmented by technology. The project converted an ordinary three-bedroom house into a prototype for technology-enabled care. It featured bath and cooker monitors, automated nightlights, item locators, and a virtual message board to provide prompts.

More recent examples bring in sensor technology while patients do everyday tasks, and leverages AI and machine learning to assist with things like cooking, washing, and preparing to sleep.

Increasingly, these smart devices are generating information which can be captured by researchers. Through analysis of this IoT data in the cloud, they can identify patterns in the behaviour of dementia patients, enabling them to predict the progression of dementia symptoms.

Of course, leisure activities are also important, and technology has huge potential to help here too. Virtual cycling, GPS and fall detection technology to assist with walking, and even projects like StoryTable which encourages social interactions through old video clips played through screen-mounted tables – all of these can dramatically increase quality of life.

Perhaps one of the most touching stories of recent years is seeing dementia patients interact with virtual reality. ‘Reminiscent experiences’ for example take the form of recreating a patient’s environment in their youngers days – whether it be a party, a church, or even the home they grew up in – filming it, and delivering it via an interactive VR headset experience.

Studies have shown these experiences can help patients recall old memories, providing positive mental stimulation and helping their caregivers learn more about their lives before care.

While we sometimes think of tech as being just silicon and complex jargon, in the battle against dementia, it’s so much more. It’s a tool to enable patients to rediscover their humanity: to find independence, comfort, and even compassion. Until we find that elusive cure, technology is going to be the chief driver of enabling these patients to live the remainder of their lives with the dignity they deserve.