Helping people with dementia and Alzheimer’s has been a long time goal for many roboticists. We see robots simplifying work and processes for humans every day. Robots have managed to assist surgeons, create and manage assembly lines in factories, do inventory, and so on. Finally, there have been teams across the world that have started to explore the ways in which robots can help people who suffer from Alzheimer’s dementia.
How Robots Help Caregivers and Patients Both
With the improvement in technology, comes improvement in the quality of life for people all over the world. There are many teams of researchers that examine ways in which robots can relieve caregiver duties and reduce their stress. There are some robots keep an eye on a parent or senior loved one if the caregiver is too far, there are robots that help patients get in and out of bed, and there are some who remind the patients to take their medication.
These robots are designed keeping in mind that the main aim is to help people with dementia stay in their homes, and not have to move into a community. Added benefit is the stress relief given to the caregivers.
Robots can also help the elderly deal with isolation, something very common among seniors with dementia. There is a Japanese baby seal robot named Paro, that is being shown to help the elderly calm down and with anxiety in people with dementia by staying with them and giving them company, acting like a virtual pet. There is another robot called Mario, which has been built and programmed to give company to the patients by keeping them engaged in activities and events.
There are many individualized applications that push social connection available with Mario which helps the seniors feel less lonely.
Caregivers need the robots to fulfill two major roles, which is provide support positive moments that are shared by caregivers and their loved ones and reduce the caregivers’ stress by taking on difficult tasks like answering repeated questions and restricting unhealthy food. Robots can also be used to support fun activities with the patient and the caregiver.
A lot of times, caregivers end up putting the patients first and overlook their own health and wellbeing, which is bad for both the parties.
Existing technology mostly focuses on educating the caregivers as support, and not assisting them with their actual tasks. Caregivers sometimes need to access virtual support systems and connections to doctors and healthcare providers using phones or computers, but this is also education and not direct assistance.
So if there are robots who could provide caregivers the rest they need, they should be made with the caregiver’s input so that they are designed to help the caregivers and prove to be useful. It is crucial to get the stakeholders’ perspectives before building any type of technology.
Nearly fifty percent of the robots designed by caregivers were mainly focused on removing stress from all the repetitive questions that dementia patients ask. They also pictured their robots to be able to provide reminders of their daily schedule as well as tasks. They were also designed to help with physical therapy and being able to manage medications.
Characteristics of Robots Needed by Caregivers
After a lot of research, a number of characteristics have been identified for robots to possess to support caregivers of dementia patients:
- Robots should assist with conversations when repetitive questioning becomes burdensome
- Integration of robots into everyday objects that patients with dementia are familiar with, or robots should borrow features from those objects.
- Robots should be adaptable. This is in regards to both the situations and to the behavior of the person who is suffering from dementia. This is a really important feature because dementia is a progressive disease and each stage comes with its own challenges that the caregivers have to deal with.
- Robots should be created in a way that enables them to learn from end users and they should be customized and personalized to enable better interaction and responses.
- Robots should have at least some human-like components to make the patients with dementia more comfortable using their services and build trust.
- Robots should be created in a way that they could interact with humans using voice activation, kind of like a smart speaker. It would be better if the robots could use voices that the patients were familiar with and trusted.
- Robots should have the facial recognition feature.
Different Types of Robots Available for Use
There are robots that help patients get in and out of bed. They also remind them to take their medication. Another feature is measuring their moods and providing regular updates to their caregivers.
There is a South Korean-made robot called Silbot3 that is designed to enable people to stay at home for a longer time before it becomes absolutely necessary to shift into a care home. People do not always have a caregiver present at home, and at homes where there is a caregiver present, they often need a break during the day to recuperate and get their personal tasks completed.
There is a Japanese baby seal robot Paro, which helps calm people with dementia and keeps them company. PARO can show surprise, happiness and anger and will cry if it is not receiving enough attention. It has tactile sensors and moves its tail and flippers and opens its eyes when petted. It responds to sounds, can learn its name and learns to respond to words its owner uses often.
There is a robot called MARIO that has been programmed to provide companionship to the person with dementia as well as provide support. It helps them connect or stay connected to the patient’s family and friends. It also helps them stay engaged by conducting activities and events that interest the patient. MARIO comes with a lot of applications which promote connectivity in a social aspect. The applications have games, news, music along with many programs that are specifically used to help the patient feel less lonely.
The “My Memories” app has photographs stored from the patient’s past and MARIO prompts conversations about the content of the photo.
The “My Family and Friends” application collects all social media information and keeps the patient informed about the goings on of their friends and loved ones.
The “My Calendar/Events” application acts like a reminder and informs the patient of any special events taking place in their families or communities. The results of tests with MARIO have been positive so far.
RobAlz is the first robot designed to provide help and assistance to patients during the early stages of Alzheimer’s. One could even call it a “robot nurse.”
Robalz comes with various functions, some of which include:
- Entertainment: the robot can tell stories, news, has music and movies
- Stimulation: it comes with memory exercises and various therapies, which could be musical or artistic so as postpone cognitive decline
- Personal assistance: the robot will help the patient in everyday life and constantly remind the patient of all the activities that need to be done, along with the location of objects as well as options of what to wear
- Safety and security: RobAlz comes with an alarm that shows if the user showcases any behavior out of the ordinary
- Reports: the robot generates reports periodically to help healthcare providers with the tracking of the disease
Other Robotic Applications
These type of robots are mainly used in physical rehabilitation of patients.
For example: Cyberdyne’s HAL system of robotic prosthetics for people with motor problems.
These robots provide direct care to their patients.
For example, Care-o-bot handles drinks, plays memory games with the residents in the care home and helps them with their documentation, and even chants with the residents if they wish.
Another service robot being tested in German nursing homes, Casero, can carry one hundred kilos, making it ideal for heavy tasks such as carrying laundry baskets and monitoring corridors to discourage wandering residents.
Telepresence robots are the ones that act like ‘avatars’ for the residents of nusing homes and caregivers. This helps in interaction with people over long distances. They convey some sence of personal presence. Telepresence robots come with combined telephony and long-range remote control. They permit nursing home caregivers in monitoring the residents and staff members. Some examples are Giraff and VGo.
The emotional robot
Companion robots are made to interact with patients to help them with their social interactions. This is therapeutic and it helps especially with special needs patients, which includes patients with dementia.
For example, Aibo, Yumel, PLEO, and Huggable.
The Important Role of Human Caregivers
The burden on caregivers of people with dementia is quite the heavy one. If there is any way to make it easier for them, it will end up helping the patient as well. Once their caregiver is less stressed, a little happier, and more rested, the quality of the care provided will be better as well. But this does not mean that you can replace the importance of humans with robots, it will only lead to impersonal relationships for the individuals with dementia. The help is necessary, but so is the human touch.