If a team of Toronto-based researchers have their way, older adults and people with disabilities – including dementia patients – will one day have the help of robots.
The high-tech, low-cost helpers are currently being tested at the HomeLab, a physical mock-up of a furnished single-floor condominium unit at the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute.
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Although robotic systems such as this are likely five to 10 years away from being widely available, the lab’s research manager, Dr. Jennifer Boger, says they have “tremendous potential” for supporting dementia patients and their caregivers.
“They are intended to help alleviate caregiver burden and allow caregivers to spend more time with the person, doing things other than helping with activities of daily living,” Boger said.
While the the thought of robots conjures thoughts of humanoid servants, these robots are more like a system of sensors that can talk to the patient.
How they operate
A team of researchers from the University of Toronto is developing robotic systems to help patients who have cognitive disabilities, including Alzheimer’s and dementia, with activities of daily living.
In the kitchen of the HomeLab unit, a system of sensors signals to “ED,” a mobile robot, with a video screen face, to wheel its way up to the sink and help a patient with Alzheimer’s disease make a cup of tea.
“Turn the water on now. Try pulling the silver lever towards you,” ED says in its robotic voice.
In the bathroom, another system of sensors called “COACH” detects whether the patient has difficulty with hand washing.
Mounted to the right of the mirror above the sink, a video monitor shows the patient how to wash their hands.
“Let’s start washing hands. Turn on the water,” it says to the patient.
Dr. Sharon Cohen, a behavioural neurologist and medical director at Toronto Memory Program observed the clinical trials first hand, watching actual dementia patients interact with ED and the COACH system. She believes patients can make a personal connection with them.
“There’s no reason why the individual can’t develop a relationship with an inanimate object if he or she finds it helpful and enjoys its company,” says Cohen
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