Dementia patients using robots, virtual reality to engage

April 3, 2017

High-tech tools, like humanoid robots and virtual reality are transforming the lives of people living in Australian dementia care facilities.

The technology — used to engage, entertain and encourage social interaction — is bringing the residents out of their shells.

In the process, it is dispelling any notion that age and cognitive impairment are a barrier to embracing technology.

At the Brightwater dementia facility in Madeley, in Perth's northern suburbs, some residents have formed a close emotional bond with a small humanoid robot named Alice.

People with dementia often withdraw from social contact, but staff say they cannot keep residents away from Alice's weekly music group.

With programming support from staff, Alice also runs exercise classes and a games hour where residents are encouraged to socialise.

Many clearly enjoy their interactions with the little robot.

For example, after being beaten by a jubilant Alice in a game of rock, paper, scissors, resident Colin Farmer patted her affectionately on the foot and said "thanks, mate".

"She's one of the family here now, a real member of the family," Mr Farmer said.

"She makes everyone happy."

Fellow resident, Joan Jones, said she was a little startled when Alice arrived at the facility in November 2015, but now considered her a friend.

"She communicates with us. And when we're all there singing, she's singing with us," she said.

Alice was the first Zorabot introduced to a dementia facility in Australia, although the robots are used in facilities in Europe, Japan and the US.

She is a Nao robot which uses Zora software, developed in Europe and specially designed for aged care.

PHOTO: "We all love you." Dorothy Binder gives Alice the robot a cuddle. (ABC News: Rebecca Turner)

With the help of a National Health and Medical Research Council grant, Brightwater has begun a study to measure the effects of Alice on the engagement of residents and staff.

Chief executive Jennifer Lawrence said the final report would be published in August.

"We're delighted about the level of engagement we have got from residents and we're delighted about the reaction we have got from staff," she said.

"Our staff were initially reticent — this technology is new, is it going to replace us?"



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