Engineering purpose for people with dementia Monday, 27 November 2017

With just over 413,100 people living with dementia in Australia and 244 joining that number every day, new technologies being trialled in Canada to reduce challenging behaviours are welcome news.

Dementia represents a large group of illnesses that cause a progressive decline, according to Dementia Australia, and refers broadly to loss of memory, intellect, rationality, social skills and physical functioning. It can also affect problem-solving and language.

Engineers in the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering at the University of Toronto have developed and trialled a wall-mounted activity station known as Abby, designed for people with late-stage dementia.

Professor Mark Chignell said Abby was created to provide people in long-term care facilities an opportunity for mental and physical activity that prevents and reduces problem behaviours. He said a lack of stimulation in their environment leads those with dementia to become confused and anxious.

“I think that people in long-term care are extremely bored and feel like they have no sense of purpose,” Prof Chignell said.

“Many of the emotional parts of the brain, and the parts that respond to rewards, are working just fine, so we should focus on what remains. Even if they can’t read, or have trouble talking, there are still ways to engage people and to give them meaningful activities that they can perform.”

Prof Chignell and his team partnered with Ambient Activity Technologies (AAT) to develop Abby, their first product. Abby is a large wall-mounted activity station that integrates a screen with wheels, switches and textures and is designed to adapt to a range of puzzles, games and challenges. It is designed to accommodate and stimulate people’s remaining cognitive abilities, prompting them to touch, listen, and respond.

The activity station was placed in six Ontario long-term care facilities where positive results were evident after just one month of use. In its findings, the engineering team noted that the use of Abby significantly reduced problem behaviours and improved quality of life for residents.

The research team has developed a second unit for commercialisation, Centivizer, for elderly people and those with early stage dementia. It is more interactive, with reward-focused games and levers to help maintain physical and cognitive functioning.


Image: A resident at an Ontario long-term care facility uses Abby. Source: AAT