Posted in | Medical Robotics

Caregivers for Dementia Patients Design Robots to Reduce Emotional Stress and Handle Daily Tasks

Caregivers for Dementia Patients Design Robots to Reduce Emotional Stress and Handle Daily Tasks

Image credit: University of California San Diego

For a long time, roboticists have aimed to design robots that can help people with dementia. Yet so far, no one has taken a survey of informal caregivers, for instance, family members, about what roles and features these robots should be built with.

A team of researchers at the University of California San Diego aimed to address this by spending six months co-engineering robots with social workers, family members, and other caregivers who assist people with dementia. They have presented their findings at the Human Robot Interaction conference held in South Korea between March 11th and 14th.

Scientists learned that caregivers required the robots to accomplish two key roles: assist positive moments shared by caregivers and their loved ones; and reduce caregivers’ emotional stress by taking on tough tasks, such as responding to repeated questions and limiting unhealthy food.

“Caregivers conceived of robots not only managing difficult aspects of caregiving—but also for supporting joyful and fun activities,” said Laurel Riek, a professor of computer science at UC San Diego, and the paper’s senior author.

Spouses or adult children give 75% of the care for people with dementia. That is equal to 15 million people in the US alone, offering 18 billion hours of unpaid care per year with little support and limited resources. Caregivers are also likely to ignore their own health and wellbeing, which can result in a health hazard for both parties.

A majority of the technology designed to support caregivers only aim to educate, instead of minimizing the burden. Caregivers now and then also have access to virtual support systems and connections to clinicians via desktop computers or smartphones, but again this centers on education and not direct assistance.

By contrast, homecare robots could offer caregivers the respite they desperately need. Before constructing the robots, it is vital to obtain the caregivers’ input so that the robots are properly designed and truly useful.

It is imperative researchers take a community-health focused approach to understanding stakeholders’ perspectives prior to building the technology. Especially in healthcare robotics—one should not walk in with a technology hammer.

Laurel Riek, Study Senior Author and Professor of Computer Science, UC San Diego.

Half of the robots that caregivers designed were mainly concentrated on easing stress from the tiresome questions people with dementia ask. Caregivers also proposed robots that could offer reminders of a person’s everyday schedule and chores. They also expected robots to help with physical therapy and manage medications.

As dementia advanced, caregivers needed the robots to interact more with the person with dementia by helping with everyday tasks and providing reminders. The robots that caregivers envisioned acted as facilitators and counselors—and occasionally as the “bad guys” who could say “no” to the person with dementia.

The scientists are currently using these preliminary low-tech prototypes to design high-tech prototypes that they plan to start testing in homes throughout the following year.

Interviews and hands-on workshops

For the research, the team led by Riek built connections with three different dementia day care centers in San Diego County.

A series of interviews and practical workshops with caregivers were carried out by two UC San Diego cognitive science undergraduate students, Sanika Moharana and Alejandro E. Panduro, and one computer science postdoc, Hee Rin Lee. A total of 18 people took part in the research, including 13 family members who served as caregivers for people with different types of dementia, five social workers who led the day care centers, and three geriatric nursing students who were employed at the centers.

Based on the participants’ feedback, the team identified 16 key challenges that caregivers had to handle, from trouble accepting dementia, to isolation, to the strain of prioritizing self-care.

In the workshops, the scientists gave caregivers a short presentation about the types of technologies currently available, including smart speakers cleaning robots, pet-like robots, telepresence robots, and wearables.

Then, with the students’ help, caregivers chose key issues and collaboratively co-designed robots to handle them. They used pre-cut foam shapes to construct the robot prototypes. They also selected operations for the robots (such as playing games, exercising, reviewing photo albums, and so on) and a mode of interaction between the robot and caregivers and person with dementia (such as touch screens and voice commands).

Caregivers designed their model robots to follow programmed scenarios supplied by scientists and the social workers, including stopping a person with dementia from driving, answering repetitive questions or making them bathe.

Robot characteristics

Based on the outcome of the six-month long community design process, the team identified several characteristics and design guidelines for robots to assist dementia caregivers and people with dementia:

  • Robots should help redirect conversations when monotonous questioning becomes difficult
  • Robots should be incorporated into daily objects that the people with dementia are already acquainted with, or borrow features from those objects. For instance, one caregiver wanted her husband to receive messages via the TV, which he spends most of his time watching.
  • Robots should be able to adapt to new circumstances and to the behavior of the person with dementia. This is mainly important because dementia is a progressive disease and each stage brings new trials for caregivers. Furthermore, patterns of progression differ from individual to individual and as a result, are virtually impossible to predict.
  • Robots should be able to pick up cues from end users, and modify and personalize their interaction and responses
  • Robots should have human-like parts. That is not to say that they should resemble human. Rather the machines could, for instance, use a real human face or voice. “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 scientists write. According to this, caregivers wanted robots to incorporate features that would help strengthen trust, such as looking like a clinician or friend.
  • Robots should relate to humans via voice activation—a lot like a smart speaker. More precisely, caregivers wanted the robots to use voices that their loved ones would be acquainted with— doctors or caregivers. Caregivers also requested for the robots to be capable of facial recognition.

Riek is part of the Contextual Robotics Institute at UC San Diego, a collaboration between the Jacobs School of Engineering and the Division of Social Sciences at UC San Diego. The institute’s study teams are working to solve present-day’s tough challenges in major areas, including healthcare robotics.

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