Connecting from Afar
A new study out of the University of Manitoba is hoping to show how feasible telepresence robots can be in connecting people with dementia to their families.
A research team at the University of Manitoba has created an innovative tool that helps care partners and people with dementia to better communicate and interact. Co-led by Amine Choukou, an assistant professor at U of M’s department of occupational therapy college of rehabilitation sciences, the team is conducting a pilot study with 15 families in Manitoba using different telepresence robots with different functions and capabilities. The study began in summer 2021 and is expected to last two years.
The research project is a partnership between Research Manitoba and the Victoria General Hospital Foundation. The telepresence robots are operated by computers, tablets or smartphones, and can be remotely controlled by a care partner from anywhere in the world. The technology allows the care partner to “drop-in” on loved ones living with dementia and view what the robot is seeing and hearing, using the device’s camera(s), microphones and speakers.
“You can feel the presence of family members as they appear on the screen."
– Amine Choukou
According to Choukou, the simplicity of the robot’s interface — essentially an app with two functions (i.e. call the robot and monitor the robot remotely) — makes set-up a breeze for care partners and requires almost zero technological know-how from the person living with dementia.
“The beauty of it is the person living with dementia doesn’t have to do anything,” Choukou says. “You can feel the presence of family members as they appear on the screen. The caller controls the navigation via an easy-to-use, four-direction arrow, like a digital joystick. You can even send a signal remotely to have the robot go back to its docking station for charging.”
The 15 robots — which were recently given names such as Buddy, Hope and Ally as the result of an online contest — will also connect to smart home systems like Amazon’s Alexa. This can allow care partners to turn on lights, play music or even lock doors for their loved ones.
Choukou and his team, who designed the robots with Dr. Reg Urbanowski, dean of the College of Rehabilitation Sciences at the University of Manitoba, hope their study will show how feasible telepresence robots can be in connecting people living with dementia to their family members.
The 15 study participants, all of whom had mild cognitive impairment when the study began in summer 2021, will live alone in their own homes throughout the duration of study.
Choukou believes that, in addition to increased interaction — families teleconferencing through the robot more often — the robots will make it easier for family members to monitor their loved one’s well-being and intervene earlier, if needed. He says the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the dire need for this technology and he is excited to test the robots in the real world.
“Many people living with dementia were already isolated, they were already lonely and COVID-19 made this so much worse for them," Choukou says. "What we are doing is meaningful, and it is becoming even more meaningful during these times."
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