Tessa, a cuddly little social robot that supports people with dementia made headlines in March. We know technology can revolutionize care, but Tessa claimed her place as one of the first examples that made it past the pilot stage. The tinybot is not the only piece of technology that improves the lives of people with dementia. More than 270,000 people suffer from this disease in The Netherlands and, with no cure in sight, the need for solutions that increase patients’ quality of life is high. ProXcellence, SAP, and the Dutch Alzheimer Association joined forces to develop an application prototype that helps patients and their loved ones engage in real and meaningful conversation.
Preserving the memories of people with dementia
Memories make us who we are. As does interaction with others. What if your memories gradually fade away? And you’re not able to make contact with others the way you used to? Every hour, five people in The Netherlands get dementia. The current number of patients is expected to have doubled by 2040. And they all experience what I just described. They lose their memories and their ability to strike up a conversation with their loved ones. Or with caretakers, volunteers, or other people in their nursing homes, for that matter.
What if there was a way to preserve those memories? And make it easier to spark interaction between someone who suffers from dementia and other people? User-experience designer Robin van Otterdijk from ProXcellence asked himself those questions after his grandfather Toon ended up in a nursing home because of his advancing dementia. Toon was an Olympic athlete in the sixties and earned medals for rowing in both Tokyo and Rome. However, in the care home, at a table with other people he never met, he was not able to tell his story.
Tapping into people’s past with an app
It was at that table in the nursing home where Robin came up with the idea of an app that helps people with dementia tap into their past. Or as Robin puts it: “A way to collect stories from his life and early memories, so my grandfather could share them with others in the home and preserve his – gradually dissolving – personality.” Somehow, those early memories are key to start a conversation. For some reason, the personal details from the early life of someone with dementia are what stay in their recollection. People may lose their knowledge, but not the memories of important life events.
Taking a digital trip down memory lane
ProXcellence, SAP, and the Dutch Alzheimer Association combined Robin’s idea with the award-winning concept for the application ‘En Toen’ of user-experience designer Romina Pompei. She wanted to create a similar application that could break the ice and stimulate conversation between caretaker and patient. Based on both Robin’s and Romina’s personal and professional experiences, the crew of the Mobile Innovation Lab developed a working prototype in just five days. And it incorporates exactly what Robin and Romina had in mind: It helps people with dementia look back on their early lives and talk about it, whether they are speaking with loved ones or caregivers.
In the first stages of dementia, people can easily add photos, stories, videos, or music to the app themselves. In later stages, their families can stock the app with memories. The developers are even thinking about combining the application with machine learning. The software will then automatically search for and create content that is relevant to the life story of the person with dementia.
When designing any app, you always aim for a clear and simple user interface. This is even more crucial when developing a solution for users who suffer from memory loss. The memory app is therefore very easy to use. By simply clicking through the app, users can browse through different themes such as work, holidays, and family. The application comes with additional tips to start and streamline a conversation, like making sure you talk to someone in a place they feel comfortable and asking about little details.
Improving self-esteem and confidence by triggering memories
The prototype does not only make for a deeper conversation. Truly engaging with someone who has dementia and triggering their memories also improves self-confidence. Losing the ability to recall the past can have a big impact on self-esteem, but reminiscing gives a person, in a way, the feeling of having control over one’s life. Equally important, it also stimulates the brain.
The solution also has the potential to not only improve the quality of someone’s life, but also that of their care. The app, and with it the personal history of someone, helps to break down prejudices or stereotypes that are commonly attributed to people with dementia. Loved ones can navigate through visual memories and strike up a chat. This is also the case for caregivers, volunteers, nurses, or even fellow residents of a home. With a little digital help, they can move past small talk or even silence and really get to know a person and build a relationship.
A meaningful and focused conversation
Of course, you can bring old photographs to your loved ones yourself, but they often come unstructured and without any context. The app makes it possible to add notes, tips, or questions. This enables others to understand the context of the memorabilia and helps them to ask more detailed questions, which makes for a more meaningful and focused conversation. And that is exactly what we want to offer with this app. Having memories available at your fingertips is one of the most powerful tools to support the mind.
The journey of the memory app doesn’t end after five days in the Mobile Innovation Lab. Although the application is in the development phase, the future already looks promising. We keep working on the solution to turn it into a minimal viable product. After that, the Dutch Alzheimer Association is planning to test the app in the field. Eventually, the association wants to make the application available to the users of its platform for people with dementia. Want to stay informed? Register at Dementie.nl platform for updates.