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Testing technology: How new interactive gadgets could help dementia patients

Testing technology: How new interactive gadgets could help dementia patients
28th June 2017

Dementia is a condition that affects different people at different rates and, as such, it can be difficult to find things for patients to do that will keep them mentally stimulated.

Antipsychotic medications are obviously a last resort and set programmes such as music therapy can prove tricky to implement on an ongoing basis, but failing to provide activities at all can lead to boredom and eventually undesirable outcomes such as wandering and even depression.

With the aim of improving creative stimulation for people with dementia in mind, one company has been testing a simple yet apparently effective gadget that could eventually be rolled out to care homes worldwide.

Ambient Activity Technologies has created the Ambient Activity or AA unit, which is designed with a wooden case to resemble an old-fashioned television or radio and can be mounted on the wall.

When a patient flips a switch or turns a knob, it will display pre-loaded, personalised content including slideshows of family photos, clips of films and more. Bluetooth technology is used to recognise each resident so their personalised content can be accessed at any time of the day or night.

The simplicity of the gadget combined with the ability to display photos to trigger memories could be a real boon, as studies have repeatedly shown that taking a trip down memory lane can really help people with dementia to improve their wellbeing and boost engagement with their surroundings.

Work is currently being carried out at the University of Toronto to evaluate the effectiveness of the AA units in terms of alleviating boredom and increasing engagement, both factors that could significantly improve the management of behaviour in people with dementia.

Post-doctoral research fellow Andrea Wilkinson is behind the study and recently presented preliminary findings at the 2017 International Symposium on Human Factors and Ergonomics in Health Care.

"AA aims to treat the cause rather than the symptom by creating meaningful physical, mental, and social engagement with personalised activities and content. Our goal is to help people with dementia maintain their physical and cognitive status as much as possible while enhancing their quality of life," she commented.

Testing and evaluation us still underway, but it is hoped that the devices could eventually be rolled out commercially and available to care homes where people with dementia live.

Video games have long been linked with positive outcomes for those with dementia and Alzheimer's, as even a diseased brain is able to make new neurological connections and computer games can be programmed to specifically target the needs of individual players.

A past study reported in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry showed how a game called Smartbrain significantly improved cognition in a group of elderly people diagnosed with Alzheimer's in Spain, for example.

Meanwhile, just this year, research at the University of Manchester suggested encouraging elderly relatives to play their grandchildren's video games could help them to avoid getting dementia in the first place.

Where electronic games are unavailable, even basic activities such as bingo and dancing can be enough to stimulate the senses and stave off boredom. Indeed, as the disease progresses, the simplest things such as wearing bright colours and jangling bells are valuable for cognitive encouragement.

However, if care homes are able to access simple, affordable devices like AA units in the future, it may be that they are able to significantly improve patient wellbeing for people at all stages of the condition without too much more extra input from already overstretched staff.