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Using Technology to Bring Smiles to People with Dementia

Thursday, April 16th, 2020

As the coronavirus pandemic continues, tough calls are being made to protect our most vulnerable from COVID-19. For many people over the age of 70 years old, this means strong recommendations to self- isolate at home for as long as practicable. These measures are essential to prevent the spread of the virus and more deaths, yet they risk further isolating our older Australians who often already report feeling lonely[1].

In a review published late last year, researchers at Sydney University looked at how well technological advances are doing at engaging people with dementia in meaningful activities and connecting them with others[2]. They performed a systematic search for all relevant studies based out of aged care facilities and published between 2008 and 2018.  The authors found 20 studies, seven of them from Australia.

Balancing Respectful Engagement

Technology fell into two categories – robotics and multimedia computer programs.  The most frequently evaluated robotic was PARO, an interactive fluffy white seal robot that barks and wags its tail. Gerry, a giraffe-shaped robot, described as “Skype on Wheels”, was another named robotic. It is designed to be kept inside the home of the person with dementia and remotely controlled by their family. The review reported that people with severe dementia, relative to mild dementia, benefited most from interactions with the robotics. Relatedly, the authors raised the ethical issue of robotic animals appearing too childlike or “silly” for some people. Overall, the use of robots was related to higher frequencies of positive behaviours observed in people with dementia, such as smiling and laughing – as well as an improved quality of life. However, this was not consistently more so than in interactions with real pets or plush toys.

Digital Reminiscing 

The multimedia computer programs mainly took the format of interactive personalised content, such as photographs, videos, music and family messages, to assist with reminiscence.  Staff and family reported finding the structured programs provided confidence in initiating or maintaining conversations with people with dementia. Similar to robotics, the review summarised a reported increase in positive behaviours and human interaction using the computers; although again, not reliably more so than traditional leisure activities.

As we consider an indefinite time behind closed doors for our loved ones aged over 70 during the COVID-19 pandemic, the viability of new technologies to enhance meaningful engagement for those with dementia becomes suddenly more appealing.