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An Innovative Dementia-Friendly Living Space

Dementia currently affects 5.4 million adults in the United States alone, with the number projected to balloon to 106.2 million by 2050. Two-thirds of people affected with dementia are women, and two-thirds of all caregivers are women. Women are at a much higher risk of partner abandonment or nursing-home placement and are also more likely to outlive their spouses, decreasing available informal caregiving resources significantly.

To ensure safety, maintain quality of life, and attempt to offer uninterrupted assistance, an interdisciplinary team from the Swenson College of Science and Engineering, College of Liberal Arts, the Medical School, the School of Fine Arts, College of Pharmacy, and the Labovitz School of Business are developing a sensor-based robotic assistant.

“Wearable sensors allow for live and ongoing collection of biometric data, but this can be difficult for patients to understand and interpret. Combining wearable and space sensors with therapeutic robots can provide a human-like social interface for people affected with dementia, especially women,” said Arshia Khan, PhD, principal investigator for the project and associate professor in the Swenson College of Science and Engineering.

The interprofessional team includes a computer scientist/roboticist, philosopher, epidemiologist/focus group specialist, dietitian, clinical ethicist, mechanical engineer, futurist, marketing specialist, and pharmacist. Together, they are working on a multidisciplinary approach to address augmentation of dementia care provision by employing an embedded ethics approach. They are investigating the feasibility of combining assistive therapeutic robots, an intelligent pill dispenser, and wearable sensors to complement human caregiving.

“We have been programming the prebuilt robot named Pepper to provide autonomous verbal communication to assist in medication adherence,” said Khan. “In order to test our proposed assistive robot integrated with a sensor-based system, we need a living space that is designed and fitted with the sensors to work optimally.”

The team will conduct focus group discussions with patients, caregivers, and providers to gather information about care-provision concerns; areas in which care augmentation will best benefit both patients and caregivers; mechanisms/tasks to maintain patient safety; and apparatus to best achieve medication adherence.

Khan explains, “We will explore the proper placement of different sensors, the mechanical and technical needs of robots to freely move in a space equipped with the basic amenities that offer a safe and secure living space for people affected with dementia.”

This initiative received funding from the Office of Academic Clinical Affairs BOLD Ideas Grant program which supports interdisciplinary teams seeking to tackle the complex issues inhibiting the health and wellbeing of our communities.

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