Making technology work for people living with dementia
Dr. Alex Mihailidis, Associate Professor / Barbara G. Stymiest Research Chair at the University of Toronto / Toronto Rehab Institute
We use technology every day to make our lives better, often times without thinking about it. But biomedical engineer Alex Mihailidis tells us that using the same devices to help people with dementia is largely limited to smart phone apps that remind them to take medications and GPS tracking devices for those who wander.
However, Mihailidis, who is also a professor in occupational science and computer science at the University of Toronto, envisions a suite of smart, computerized devices to help people with dementia live as independently as possible.
Funded in part by the Alzheimer Society Research Program, he leads a team of computer scientists, gerontologists, psychologists, bioengineers and speech pathologists in a quest to perfect devices such as "the talking bathroom." The bathroom has sensors to detect when someone has not turned on the tap or has forgotten soap, and which then trigger a gentle voice to prompt them. It includes a video screen in front of the sink to demonstrate proper hand washing.
The team is also working on “Ed,” an interactive robot that looks like an upright vacuum cleaner with a flat video screen face. Ed can follow you into the kitchen and give voice prompts to help you complete daily tasks, such as making a cup of tea.
Preliminary tests at the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute show people with dementia are willing to interact with Ed and follow its prompts. Later tests will determine how much Ed’s help will improve someone with dementia’s ability to complete specific tasks.
“We’re still in the research phase. These are complex technologies,” says Mihailidis. “Our goal is to work with users to translate these devices into useful technology and move them out of the lab into the real world.”
But before this can happen, there needs to be a change in the way we view these technologies.
"We need to stop seeing them as medical devices and look at them as part of the personal consumer electronics market," he says. "We need to be able to buy them in the same locations we buy our consumer electronics."