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Assistive technology helps dementia sufferers get through the day

Tens of millions of elderly people in the EU suffering from mild dementia may be able to look after themselves, and free up their carers, thanks to a new European-developed system.

One of the first and most debilitating symptoms of dementia is short-term memory loss, which means care is required for people who are otherwise quite capable of looking after themselves. They can perform tasks, but they forget them or how to do them.

Other symptoms of mild dementia can be linked to a loss of self-confidence – old people increasingly refraining from initiating social contact – and to a sense of insecurity.

How to address these concerns and enable mild dementia victims to continue to lead independent lives for an extended period of time has been researched, and possibly solved, by an EU-funded project.

The COGKNOW project brought together some of the leading dementia specialists in Europe, doctors from the Netherlands, Sweden and Northern Ireland, with teams of software researchers and developers. Their aim was to address a range of different needs of mild dementia patients and come up with a simple, user-friendly device to meet those needs.

Need for simple-to-use devices

“Separate devices and solutions exist for many of the needs, and if people learn how to use them early on, then they may be able to continue using them quite far into the disease” says the project’s scientific coordinator Johan E Bengtsson. “But it then becomes a problem for the patient to remember where the devices are, and how each of them works,” he says. Also, in later stages of the disease, simplified devices are needed, and at that stage it is usually too late to teach anybody how to use even the simpler devices and the person will then need to rely on a carer.

So the COGKNOW project set out to create two very user-friendly devices, one home-based and one mobile, featuring all the high-priority and previously unmet needs, as identified by end users and their carers, as well as the dementia experts.

They determined that touch-screen technology was the ideal interface between persons with dementia and computer-based assistive functions. An added attraction was the fact that they could buy the needed hardware devices off the shelf and then install the COGKNOW Day Navigator software suite on them.

Self-explanatory icons

The end result was a flat-screen monitor for the home, which can be either wall mounted or standalone, and a mobile smart phone with a much simplified user interface installed.

Both devices are controlled solely by touch screen (the monitor does not even come with a keyboard) with the COGKNOW application maintained on top of everything so nothing else is visible to the end user. “The application takes control of the device and makes it impossible for the user to activate the more difficult-to-use functions of these devices,” explains Bengtsson.

All the user has to deal with are simple, self-explanatory icons on the touch screen. The in-home system can be set up to start issuing reminders from wake-up time in the morning until bed time. These can be recorded in a friend or relative’s voice, and give instructions for all sorts of activities such as picking up the morning newspaper, brushing teeth, preparing or warming pre-prepared meals, laundry and dish washing and myriad other daily activities.

They can also be linked to video presentations showing how to operate, for example, the stove, microwave oven or washing machine.

Many elderly people worry if the door is open or unlocked, and the COGKNOW system monitors this so they don’t keep on checking that during the day. On-screen icons in the form of photos help them to picture-dial friends and relatives, simply by touching a particular photo.

Coping with getting lost

Most functions are also included on the mobile device, which comes with an important extra GPS-based feature. Dementia sufferers can get disoriented when out, and the device can guide them home whenever necessary.

The system was field-tested on user groups in three countries, and the majority of users and carers perceived significant improvement in their lives and their ability to get through the day.

Now some members of the project, which finished last August, are working to commercialise the system and market it around Europe. “About two per cent of the population of Europe suffers from mild dementia and it costs an estimated €10,000 a year to provide care for each of them when they cannot cope anymore.”

“Our devices will cost a lot less than that, and can be used again by other people when the first owner progresses too far into the disease,” says Bengtsson. “If COGKNOW only extends people’s ability to look after themselves for an extra few months, then the savings are still potentially billions of euros.”

The COGKNOW consortium is looking for new partners to help with commercialisation and marketing in the shape of an established software provider, preferably with experience in mobile applications, and companies specialising in reselling and providing solutions to the care and medical sectors in individual countries or groups of countries.

Christian Nielsen | alfa
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