Reimagining technology for people with dementia
Dementia can be a debilitating disease, effecting 1 in 10 Australians over the age of 65.
As memory, judgement and physical functions are impaired, people living with the disease can lose their sense of independence and personhood.
Now, researchers from UTS and Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e) are reimagining technologies to improve the quality of life of people living with dementia.
“Technology designed for people with dementia has rarely been about improving the actual experience of the person coping with the disease,” says Professor Rens Brankaert of TU/e’s Industrial Design and Systematic Change research group.
“Rather than follow traditional routes of technology development, where safety and efficiency are the key motives, we’re following a more person-centric approach.”
Prof Brankaert has teamed up with Dr Gail Kenning, a senior research consultant at the UTS School of Software, to design user-friendly products that help people with dementia go about their daily lives with greater autonomy.
“The objects we’re designing can be quite everyday, but they can make a significant difference in people’s lives,” says Dr Kenning.
“One of the things we’re working on is improving way-finding devices,” says Prof Brankaert.
“Traditionally, way-finding systems involved putting a sensor on a person with dementia so they’re traceable through a computer, but this is very impersonal. The person doesn’t have any influence on it, they’re a puppet in the system.”
“What I designed was a compass that always points home, so people with dementia can use it by themselves. It’s still a traceable sensor; but the focus is that the wearer can always find their way back. It addresses the issue of wandering behaviour, or people getting lost in a public space, from a more empathetic perspective.”
Central to Kenning and Brankaert’s research, which intersects technology and human engagement, is the users themselves.
“I’m really interested in how we can use technology to engage with people and support their quality of life,” says Dr Kenning, whose research intersects three faculties at UTS.
“A lot of the work we do is not just changing the system to improve quality of life, it’s figuring out how to engage the people in the design process itself. That ensures the systems we devise work for people in all respects.”
Ensuring a participatory design process comes with inherent challenges when working with people with dementia.
“There’s a lot of work involved,” acknowledges Dr Kenning. “You have to come up with new ways of engaging people.”
“It’s easy when someone’s able to communicate on the same level, but to have a balanced research relationship with someone with dementia, that’s challenging,” says Prof Brankaert.
“We’re figuring out how to conduct this engagement in a respectful way.”
Their research partnership has been facilitated by the UTS Key Technology Partnerships program, an initiative that enables research collaboration between UTS and its global network of partner institutions.
Through the KTP Visiting Fellow Program, Dr Brankaert was able to visit UTS to meet Dr Kenning’s faculty counterparts in the School of Communication and the Materialising Memories group, and further their research in person.
“We’ve been aware of each other’s work and talked in person in Eindhoven and by Skype, we’d also started writing together but to follow through on some projects was difficult,” says Dr Kenning.
“The KTP program allowed us to be in the same space for a sustained period, have an on-going discussion and really work together to deliver on our research intentions.”
For Dr Kenning, the KTP program also offered exposure to the academic community in Europe. The collaboration has shown her that Australia can be a major player in understanding current global issues such as ageing and dementia.
Since commencing the project, both researchers have been at the forefront of international research into participatory design processes. They recently proposed their methods for reciprocal and in-context design in a book about the latest research in human-computer interaction.
Prof Brankaert is also set to host the annual Dementia Lab conference, in which Dr. Kenning has been involved over the past years, as part of Dutch Design Week.
“We’ve been present in this community for a few years now,” says Dr Brankaert. “We felt we should take charge and take it to Eindhoven, to really show our progress in terms of design work for this community.”