People with dementia, as well as those that take care of them, can benefit from a bit of robotic assistance. There are a few robots on the market that are designed to help elderly people around the house, but not too much exists for those suffering from cognitive decline. While there’s been development in this field, researchers at the University of California, San Diego wanted to find out what kinds of robots would actually help.

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The team brought together a group of caregivers that have a good deal of experience with dementia patients. These included social workers, family members, and others, and they helped to mock up model robots and identify the characteristics that they should have.

What the caregivers identified was a bit of a surprise to the researchers, since the focus was heavily placed on helping to maintain positive verbal communication, redirecting patients away from certain activities and questions to others, and that they should personalize their speech to the individuals they’re helping. Essentially, the caretakers are sick of the repetitive questions, the annoying debates that people with dementia can engage in, and other forms of unpleasant behavior they exhibit. The caretakers desperately want robots to take over managing this intractable problem.

From an announcement by the University of California, San Diego:

Researchers found that caregivers wanted the robots to fulfill two major roles: support positive moments shared by caregivers and their loved ones; and lessen caregivers’ emotional stress by taking on difficult tasks, such as answering repeated questions and restricting unhealthy food.

  • Robots should help redirect conversations when repetitive questioning becomes burdensome
  • Robots should be integrated into everyday objects that the people with dementia are already familiar with, or borrow features from those objects. For example, one caregiver wanted her husband to get messages through the TV, which he spends a lot of time watching.
  • Robots should be able to adapt to new situations and to the behavior of the person with dementia. This is particularly important because dementia is a progressive disease and each stage brings new challenges for caregivers. In addition, patterns of progression vary from person to person and as a result are almost impossible to predict.
  • Robots should be able to learn from end users, and customize and personalize their interaction and responses.
  • Robots should have human-like components. That is not to say that they should look human. Rather the machines could, for example, use a real human voice or face. “When caregivers wanted robots to take active roles in persuading people with dementia to do something, they designed robots with more human-like features,” the researchers write. Related to this, caregivers wanted robots to include features that would help build trust, such as looking like a friend or clinician.
  • Robots should interact with humans via voice activation –much like a smart speaker. More specifically, caregivers wanted the robots to use voices that their loved ones would be familiar with–caregivers or doctors. Caregivers also wanted robots to be capable of facial recognition.

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