Caring for a person with Alzheimer’s disease can be tough.
It can also be time-consuming.
Every year, caregivers in the United States spend an estimated 18 billion unpaid hours tending to people with Alzheimer’s disease.
With no cure in sight for the disease, researchers have developed an unlikely way to help relieve some of the caregiving burden.
A virtual assistant.
Alzheimer’s disease is a condition that robs a person of their independence and their memory over time.
For caregivers, constantly monitoring their loved ones and guiding them through simple tasks like handwashing or putting on a coat can take up time and energy.
To help both patient and caregiver, researchers at the University of Waterloo in Canada have harnessed breakthroughs in artificial technology to create a virtual assistant programmed to help people with Alzheimer’s disease.
The team is led by researcher Jesse Hoey, a professor at the David R. Cheriton School of Computer Science at Waterloo.
A prototype of the virtual assistant, which is projected on a screen, uses a mix of artificial intelligence and psychological models.
Hoey and his team have been working as part of the AGE-WELL initiative, funded by the Canadian government to assist scientists using tech-based solutions to help with the aging process.
Not your average ‘Alexa’
Their prototype, called ACT@Home, is designed to help people with Alzheimer’s complete simple tasks such as handwashing.
In a video of the prototype, “the assistant” speaks to a person at the sink if they appear confused, prompting them to turn on the water, put their hands in the water, and use soap.
But this isn’t a one-size-fits-all Alexa-type virtual assistant.
The program is designed to take into account a person’s mindset and attitude when talking to them.
Hoey told Healthline the program was developed after talking to families dealing with a person with Alzheimer’s disease.
“A lot of times the person who has Alzheimer’s disease, it fluctuates greatly from day to day,” he explained. “The caregiver has to adapt the caregiving.”
As a result, the assistant will hold back and only “step in” if the person facing the device seems confused.
In theory, it will also be able to take in facial cues from someone in order to react in a helpful way if that person is scared or confounded.
“That idea of being very passive, of stepping in only when it’s necessary... it's one of the biggest things we learned from the caregivers,” Hoey said.
In addition, Hoey hopes that by providing verbal cues it helps people with Alzheimer’s disease retain their sense of independence for a longer period of time.
“That feeling of dependence, it weakens their sense of who they are, and it can make them feel more powerless,” he said, adding it can contribute to feelings of depression.
The device may be built to interact with people who have Alzheimer’s disease, but Hoey said it is also designed to help the caregiver.
The caregivers are “often a spouse or family member, and their lives are severely impacted by the disease in the sense that they have to help them do everything,” he said. “The primary goal is helping relieve that burden.”
The team is still working on making the virtual assistant more adaptable to the person with Alzheimer’s. This means finding ways that the assistant’s manner of speaking and interacting can change depending on the person and the day.
“The goal is to make these assistants to be customizable so they adapt to how the person feels about them,” he said. “It could be an organically growing interaction or relationship.”
A way to help cope
Monica Moreno, director of care and support at the Alzheimer Association, said that more help is definitely needed to assist families.
She pointed out that people already often use technology in the early stages of the disease to help them cope.
That includes using a smart phone for medication reminders and appointment reminders.
But people need to “recognize that the technology that is available can be used in the early stage of the disease,” Moreno said.
Moreno said a program that prompts people with Alzheimer’s likely could not be used during the final stages of the disease.
“We call those verbal cues that can replace caregiver,” she said of the prompting. “Again though, it's appropriate for someone in the middle stage of the disease.”
Moreno said that Alzheimer’s disease still needs much more attention and study to find a cure or way to mitigate the worst of the symptoms.
With no cure or effective treatment, the Alzheimer’s Association believes that the number people with the condition could increase from approximately 5 million today to almost 14 million people by 2050.
She said that she hopes better research and technology will help both patients and caregivers prepare for the effects of the degenerative disease, and that the Alzheimer’s Association is now focusing on getting people diagnosed early.
“We're focusing on early detection and early diagnosis,” she said. People with the disease “can start to have discussions about having plans for the future.”