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Alexa, what day is it?

28 January 2019 | Global Insights

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There are currently an estimated 850,000 British people living with dementia and it is swiftly becoming apparent that smart home assistants have huge potential for helping sufferers who are in the first and middle stages of the disease.  With the UK population aging, could this retail technology transform the aged care sector?

It’s natural to assume that new technology is of most interest to the young, the curious and the early adopters. And yet as smart home devices proliferate and are subject to an ever-greater take-up by the mainstream, it is becoming increasingly apparent that there may well be other sections of society who may benefit most from their use.

As at 2018 there are currently nearly 850,000 British people living with dementia and it is swiftly becoming apparent that smart home assistants such as Amazon’s Echo and its Alexa voice assistant, Google’s Home and its Assistant or Apple’s Siri have huge potential for helping seniors who are in the first and middle stages of the disease. Smart home assistants can provide people suffering from various forms of dementia including: Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia, frontotemporal dementia and Lewy body disease with assistance and reassurance in the most simple way.

One of the first and more disorienting symptoms of the most common type of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, is general confusion, persistent and frequent memory difficulties, especially of recent events, and also the forgetting of well known people or places.

Caregivers are very familiar with the repetitive question syndrome, when they find themselves asked over and over again, for example, what day or time it is. This is done because it provides reassurance, but it can also be alarming or disorienting if there is no answer. That can happen when sufferers wake up in the middle of the night and are not sure where they are. Having a device near to hand to respond to this question is invaluable.

But the technology offers greater scope still. Unlike previous smart technologies, voice-activated assistants require no physical input, which is very helpful when often one of the first things to go is the memory of how to use devices like tablets and smartphones. With smart assistants, people don’t have to use screens, there is no scrolling or clicking or searching. All they have to do is speak out loud.

There is also the ability to integrate with compatible smart home brands such as lights or a doorbell camera. So for a person who may also have limited physical mobility, a simple command to turn the lights on in the bedroom or the heating up makes life that much easier. Smart gadgets can remind a person when to take their medicines.

There is also the aspect of companionship. Smart home assistants are programmed with soft tones and friendly voices to provide an ever-reliable chaperone, who can tell jokes, look up information, such as what is on the television, read audio books and play music. Hearing the music of their youth can have a powerful and profound effect on people who are in even the late stages of dementia.

As the technology progresses, the applications will only expand. There is already an app called Drop In, which assists caregivers when geographical location is an issue. With Echoes in two different locations (one with the carer and one with the person they are caring for), caregivers are able to talk directly with their charges through the device, and check on their health, a boon when there is concern about the potential for falls or other medical emergencies.

The challenges revolve around tailoring precise knowledge about a person living with dementia so that the assistant can more accurately assist them. But such questions are already being addressed. Sensors have been developed which can map and collect data about an individual’s daily activities and, with this data fed to the cloud, a complete picture can be constructed to make it possible to see when regular activities have been carried out or not carried out.

It’s still comparatively early days, but already it is clear that there are profound and far-reaching implications and applications for smart home technology for those with dementia and other special needs.