Technology and Dementia

As dementia advances, the difficulties grow and combine until perceived dangers and threats lurk everywhere. Home and outdoors are both less safe. Confusion worsens.

And then pictures speak, or the robot purrs, or the screen on the wall animates and a loved one is instantly saying “Hello.” Technology has become more user-friendly, and this is important for the older generation as diagnoses of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementia increase. Technological tools are assets, becoming more affordable and easy-to-use for both persons with dementia and the loved ones who care for them.
Technology and Tools for Persons with Dementia / Alzheimer’s
A symptom of dementia is losing track of time. Clocks specifically designed to address dementia can help by plainly displaying – in large, clear letters with no abbreviations – the date and time as well as what part of the day it is. This means the clock will actually say “Night,” “Morning,” “Day,” “Afternoon,” etc. This eases anxiety by lessening confusion, and also helps maintain routine. Someone whose sight is failing can purchase dementia clocks that speak the time information out loud if touched anywhere on the screen. These clocks typically cost between $30 and $100.

Talking Photo Albums
Talking photo albums hold pictures of loved ones, each with a button that plays a recorded message explaining what’s on the page. This can be a great way to remember loved ones or fun times in the past, and the pages can also include practicalities like medication management (accompanying pictures of medicine), reminders of things like appointments, and instructions for operating appliances like the washing machine or microwave. A talking 20-page photo album typically costs around $40.

Adapted Telephones
Adapted telephones are reprogrammed with important phone numbers, so your loved one need not remember them or have them written down, and feature large, easy-to-use buttons. The Future Call Picture Care Phone ($33), for example, has actual pictures of loved ones’ faces on the preprogrammed buttons corresponding to each person.

Another smart option might be Amazon’s Echo Show ($230), which has a five-inch screen and, with its Drop-In feature, can be programmed to initiate two-way video calls without the need to press a button. This means if you receive a phone call, it just comes up, instantly (visually) connecting the caller without the moments of confusion so common with smartphones.

Telepresent Robots
A more expensive ($12,000!), but futuristic and spectacular, option is Giraff, a “telepresence robot” that allows you to visit your loved one and move about the home without actually being there. Giraff is a screen on a post that is controlled from a distance, via a mouse over the internet. Giraff is on sturdy wheels, so it can freely move about, and the screen angles up and down. Answered via remote control, it can give your loved one the feeling you are in the room, and allows you to visit remotely, and check everywhere around your loved one for issues like safety hazards or messes. More.

Automated Pill Dispensers
There are several types of automated pill dispensers that cost from $35 and up and can be easily programmed to beep, flash lights, or make a signal when it’s time for medication, and dispense the exact amount required into something like a dosage cup. Multiple alarms can be set for each day, and there are even dispensers that record voice reminders, so you can be the one saying exactly what is being dispensed and why, further easing any anxiety that comes with taking medicine.

Dementia-Friendly Speakers
Music helps healing, so investing in a simple speaker designed to play favorite songs for someone with Alzheimer’s can be genuinely beneficial. Studies are showing that music’s effect on someone with dementia is striking. After 20 minutes of listening to music, people with Alzheimer’s in one study saw an immediate, measurable increase in happiness, eye contact, and talkativeness, and a decrease in fatigue. (For more information, click here). Some devices require only that a thick handle be lifted to start the music playing, and then lowered to stop it. There are also speakers whose settings are configured behind a large button, so the songs and volume are preprogrammed, and a person need only press that button to start (or stop) the music.

Robotic Pets
Studies have also demonstrated that a low-maintenance pet eases anxiety and lessens behavior problems for persons with Alzheimer’s or a related dementia. Well, it doesn’t get lower maintenance that a robotic cat designed specifically to help the elderly. Joy For All’s Companion Pet ($99) is a cat whose fur has a realistic feel, and its purr is meant to simulate actual purring by a friendly cat. It moves realistically, and sensors enable it to respond to petting and hugging. It even rolls over for belly rubs. At night it yawns and nods off. It also meows, but not too much. More.
Technology and Tools for Dementia / Alzheimer’s Caregivers
Appliance Use Monitors
Forgetting to turn things off becomes an issue as someone advances through the stages of Alzheimer’s, and so appliance use monitors are a good idea for loved ones to keep track of something like the microwave, coffeemaker, TV, lamps, curling iron, garage door, or CPAP machine. These devices plug into a powerstrip or wall outlet and allow you to monitor, usually on your phone, whether your loved one has remembered to power down. They can be voice controlled and allow you to easily turn something off if your loved one forgot. They can also enable you to adjust lights, fans, or the thermostat from afar. The cost is typically around $30.

Medical Alerts
Personal Emergency Response Systems (PERS), also called medical alert devices, can be a matter of life and death in the event of an emergency. Many of these devices detect falls, which is particularly common in persons with dementia, and dispatch emergency personnel to the home of the individual. They can also allow your loved one to contact emergency services with the touch of a button. Often worn on a lanyard around the neck, or clipped to a pocket, they can also include other features, such as GPS tracking. Advanced PERS even utilize motion sensors to detect movement and alert caregivers of certain activities like extended usage of the stove. Watches with these systems are also available, but these are not the best options for people in the later stages of dementia.

Location Trackers
Wandering is a problematic behavior, which can occur for a variety of reasons, for many persons with dementia. Location tracking devices are the answer. They include GPS, so the wanderer can easily be located and avoids getting lost. These devices can also be programmed to alert caregivers if a person with dementia goes outside a specific area (“geo-fencing”). Small and easily worn on a lanyard or clipped to clothes or in a pocket, and typically costing about $40 and up, location tracking devices provide tremendous peace of mind for caregivers.

Another useful tool to deal with wandering is the SafeWander sensor ($79), which started as a special sock that notified caregivers if their loved one got out of bed at night, but has been modified into a small senor that easily clips to clothes and serves the same purpose, signalling that the wanderer is up and out of bed, and may need help in the middle of the night. 

In-Home Video Monitors
In-home cameras can be aimed at strategic locations, like at medications in the bathroom or in the main living room or bedroom where a loved one with dementia spends the most time. Clear, continuous feeds can be monitored via smartphones or online. There are even cameras with speakers allowing you to talk to your loved one, like an intercom, and they can be programmed to send an alert if they don’t detect movement after a set amount of time. In-home surveillance cameras with motion sensors and an intercom typically run about $70 and up. More basic cameras can cost around $30.
Smartphone Apps for Alzheimer’s and Dementia
Technology can be overwhelming to someone with dementia, but the large, tactile surfaces of tablets and bigger smartphones have made it easier for people with dementia, particularly in earlier stages, to communicate or pass the time.

Mindmate (free) has daily activities and games designed to improve brain health, and can be customized for your loved one depending on the level of thinking impairment. The app has mental exercises and even physical exercises, and tracks progress. It includes nutrition advice and clips of classic movies, music, and TV from decades past.

It’s Done! ($2.99) isn’t for reminders, but rather lets you confirm that important tasks have been finished already. Don’t remember if the stove’s been shut off or you took your medication? Check the app for a check mark. It can also email loved ones to confirm things have been finished.

Talking Mats (free) allows the user to communicate through pictures and symbols. Ideal for someone who has difficulty speaking and explaining, Talking Mats can express specific ideas (there are pictures for settings and actions), and emotional states.

My Reef 3D Aquarium (free) comes highly recommended for people with dementia. The app lets you customize a tank of fish swimming around on the screen, which can soothe someone with Alzheimer’s. The fish react to touching the screen, as though they’re in a real tank.

Let’s Create! Pottery (free) provides an activity that simultaneously calms and encourages creativity. Simply touch the spinning clay to smooth its sides into a unique vase or pot, and save favorites into a collection.

Carezone (free) is a helpful tool for managing all medical care, useful for someone in the early stages of dementia and caregivers during the later stages. The app easily organizes lists of medications, sets reminders of when to take them, orders refills, and keeps track of doctor appointments.