How animal robots can benefit dementia patients
As our life expectancy continues to be extended the world faces a new and growing challenge—dementia. Professor Wendy Moyle’s research on the use of robots as a therapeutic tool could change the face of dementia care globally, while also allowing people to stay in their own homes longer.
“Goodbye Millie.” With those two words, nursing care staff were left with tears in their eyes.
Ted, a man living with severe dementia, had not spoken for two years. Yet a companion robot—a baby harp seal named Millie, complete with tactile sensors that make it move and blink—prompted something in Ted that staff had not witnessed before.
Only minutes earlier, leading dementia care researcher Professor Wendy Moyle had been demonstrating the new comPAnion RObot (PARO … it’s official name).
Ted was told the fur seal’s name was Millie. He seemed puzzled but began caressing Millie and placed the companion robot on his shoulder. When Millie responded, it sparked the emotion that Ted had so rarely displayed since coming to the nursing home … a smile.
When staff tried to take Millie away, Ted held on tightly. Then staff explained that Millie ‘had to go to bed’ but would be back the next day.
With that he released his grip and uttered those two unforgettable words.
Dementia is a cruel master, robbing people of their memory, often causing agitation, poor sleep, anger, a loss in the ability to communicate, and non purposeful activity such as walking as though they are searching for something.
It’s also hard on the family and carers trying to care for a person who may no longer even recognise them, or who may display aggression towards them.
Professor Moyle, the director of the Optimising Health Outcomes program at the Menzies Health Institute Queensland, knows only too well the impact of dementia.
Both of her grandfathers and father had dementia and a close family member developed early onset dementia.
For the past 25 years her research has had one simple goal—to improve the quality of life for people with dementia, as well as improve the quality of care.
Professor Moyle has been conducting one of the world’s largest studies on the use of companion robots, like Millie, involving 415 people across 28 care facilities in southeast Queensland.
Dementia care is a major growth area. As we grow older so does the prospect of developing dementia.
“One in every 10 people at age 65 will have dementia. By age 85 it will be three in 10,” says Professor Moyle.
“Just about every family will experience the impact of dementia, either for themselves, their loved ones or family members.”
While the focus 30 years ago was on the Big C—cancer—in the next few decades it will become the Big D—dementia, says Professor Moyle.
Her world-leading research into the use of robots as a therapeutic tool could change the face of dementia care.
Dementia is a leading cause of both death and burden of disease in Australia. It is taking larger and larger bites out of the public health budget and private savings. It is estimated that by 2050, around 900,000 Australians will be living with dementia.
“Currently over 50% of people with dementia in Australia reside in residential care facilities with the total direct health and aged care cost of $4.9 billion annually,” says Professor Moyle.
“It makes economic sense for the government to develop policies to assist this population to remain in their homes for as long as possible.”
Professor Moyle is also studying the use of telepresence robots. These allow a user to check in, via the Internet, with a person and then remotely manoeuvre the robot around the home and have a live video chat. The best available evidence suggests this social connection may be effective for improving well-being. Opportunities to enhance social connection are important as well.
The ability to reconnect via these robots is just one of the benefits. Professor Moyle’s team aims for the robot to take health measurements such as blood pressure so that a family member or health professional can collect and record the data remotely.
Initially, Professors Moyle’s research into robots was met with opposition.
“When I first started, this was cutting edge. People were fearful. That has changed now. Now they see that they are fun and provide great opportunities for people who are cognitively impaired,” she says.
“Time and motion studies show that in a 24-hour period the average time spent in face-to-face contact in a communicative way with people with dementia in nursing care is between 2 to 28 minutes.
“You have 23½ hours a days when people have nothing. They are sitting in a chair or in front of a television.
“If we can stimulate them, if we can engage people with dementia, help them feel good about something rather than staring at nothing, it has to be worthwhile.”
Professor Moyle hopes to release the findings soon from her major study on the cost and wellbeing benefits from the use of companion robots versus stuffed toys and traditional care methods.