A group of caregivers and individuals living with dementia will have a new way to connect from the comfort of their own homes.
University of Manitoba researchers are ready to distribute 15 mobile, tablet-carrying "telepresence robots" to families provincewide.
Dr. Amine Choukou, an assistant professor in occupational therapy at the College of Rehabilitation Sciences, Rady Faculty of Health Sciences, is co-leading the pilot project with Dr. Reg Urbanowski, the college’s dean.
"This is about family caregiving," said Choukou. "We are thinking about a set of technology that will help the caregiver perform their duties or their roles with a family member living with dementia, but continue to enjoy their life, have a career, raise their own children."
The robot’s camera, screen and speaker system will put families face-to-face, virtually. Caregivers can drive the robot around and control the camera remotely from an app on a cellphone, tablet or computer.
When designing the devices, the team strived to simplify common scenarios between the two parties. A caregiver can check on a family member’s food supply, watch them take their medication or see if their home is clean and safe.
"The major point is to help increase the quality of life of both parties," Choukou said.
Patients living with one of the robots will have to do "almost nothing" to use it, Choukou said. "This is the beauty of telepresence robot."
The tablet attached to the robot answers calls automatically and eliminates the need for the person with dementia to navigate electronics.
One version of the robot can detect a patient’s voice and drive over to them. Each robot has a charging station, and some models will dock in independently.
The project is the first of its kind in Canada, Choukou said.
Choukou and Urbanowski are working with the Victoria General Hospital Foundation and other groups to place the robots with people who have mild dementia. During the six-month trial period, Choukou will ask families for feedback.
Researchers considered how privacy factors into the technology.
"Here we are talking about very intimate relationships between a person and a family member living with dementia," Choukou said.
He hopes families can have a little fun with the robot, too. He anticipates the robots will be a conduit for virtual gatherings, creating new ways for older adults to engage in family activities with younger generations from home.
When the six-month trial ends, families can keep the technology in their homes if the arrangement works well for them, Choukou said.
Research Manitoba, a provincial funding agency, and the Vic foundation are backing the project.
"We find this to be just a fantastically innovative project," said Karen Dunlop, Research Manitoba’s chief executive officer. "We’re just really excited to partner with an innovative foundation like (the Vic foundation) who’s focused on making the lives of Manitobans better."
Choukou and his collaborators were working on the telepresence robot before the pandemic began.
But considering the project is taking place during the pandemic adds extra interest because, more than ever, people are concerned about isolation, loneliness and independent living, Dunlop said.
She sees the robots project as a means for scientists to develop, manufacture and commercialize a Manitoba-made product.
Charlene Rocke, executive director of the foundation, takes a similar view of the project and anticipates the telepresence robots are the next step in modernizing how communities care for older adults.
"Our goal is to advance research and technology in Manitoba and continue the tradition we have in supporting people to live safely and independently," Rocke said.
Choukou and his team are working with the Research and Innovation in Technology Assisted Living and the Health Science Centre Foundation on another project that focuses on connecting health-care providers and community members.