En español | These days there’s an app for just about everything, including a slew targeted at people with memory issues and their caregivers. While many of these are not useful, other assistive technologies could be lifesavers, figuratively and literally.
“There are hundreds of products and computer apps being marketed to help people with Alzheimer’s and other dementias, but very few are clinically proven,” says James Hendrix, director of global science initiatives at the Alzheimer’s Association. “Consumers need to evaluate these products carefully and ask themselves, ‘Where is the proof that this product or app will actually help?’ ” The answer is highly individual, based on the level of cognitive impairment of the person with dementia and the needs of the caregivers.
“Some of these apps have very little reality with what people with dementia are experiencing,” says Heather M. Young, a dean at the University of California, Davis, Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing and a faculty member of the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society Health Initiative.
For example, if you’re worried about a person who might wander away, a GPS bracelet might sound like a great idea. But “people with dementia try to take things off them that they don’t think are normally on their body,” says Young. A bracelet left home won’t do much good. And it might cause agitation in the person wearing it or, worse, the bracelet could give a false sense of security for the caregiver about the safety of their loved one.
Perhaps you’d like to try an alert button for a parent with very mild memory impairment who still insists on living alone. “There’s interesting data around whether people will wear them,” says Jeffrey Kaye, a neurologist who directs the Layton Aging and Alzheimer’s Disease Center at Oregon Health & Science University and researches technologies for the aging. “People are reluctant to press the button because it will alert you that it’s time for them to go to a nursing home,” he says. If you try to solve for that with a device that reports falls automatically, it can give false alarms if the person drops it or swings the button. Even when a device works well, someone has to remember to charge it, Kaye says.
What to consider
There are some good options. Researchers at Oslo Metropolitan University in Norway recently reviewed the scientific literature and found that some common technologies can support time orientation, memory, and safety in people with mild cognitive impairment/dementia. Technology can also help relieve a bit of the burden on caregivers.
With the help of experts in the field and studies, we've compiled a list of promising technologies. Here are a few things to consider, when making a selection:
- How advanced is the person’s dementia?
- Is the user comfortable with technology?
- How will the technology be set up?
- Who will make sure it’s charged and used?
- Could it cause agitation or concern in the person with dementia?
- Is a Wi-Fi connection necessary?
- Does it solve an important need or bring joy?
Everyday technologies can be extremely helpful, says Steve Ewell, executive director of the Consumer Technology Association Foundation. Examples:
Using calendar apps such as Google Calendar can be helpful when caregivers are overloaded with tasks to remember or when trying to coordinate a network of care. Calendars can be set to generate automated reminders — whether that’s several times a day or once a year — and can be used for keeping track of medication schedules, doctor appointments or when test results are due. The calendar can be shared, too, allowing more than one person to set reminders, and you can also “invite” others to see the calendar, allowing multiple caregivers to be in the loop
on appointments and events.
For checking in on a loved one with mild dementia who is being cared for at a distance, video calls with Skype, FaceTime or Google Hangouts can be useful for you to see how they are doing, and it can provide an enhanced way for them to connect with you. Not only will the person with dementia be able to see your familiar face and hear your voice, but you can see her environment and face, which may provide clues to her health and how she is feeling at that moment.
There are many benefits from voice-activated assistants, such as those offered by Amazon and Google, that can be programmed to provide reminders, play favorite music and read engaging audiobooks, tell jokes, play games and answer questions 24/7. They can even turn on lights and control the thermostat. When set up and programmed by a caregiver, these devices can provide a sense of control and comfort for the person with early to mild dementia and help reduce their feelings of social isolation and boredom. Voice-activated assistants can answer questions like “What day is it?” even when they are asked over and over.
There’s nothing like the sound of a loved one’s voice. This app for Android devices lets you record your voice to play for a reminder to take pills, drink water or turn off the lights, for example. Hearing a familiar voice can be less jarring than a mechanical alarm or alert and may be more soothing and effective for helping someone suffering from mild cognitive impairment. The app can also record the user’s reaction, which could be useful for caregivers to help track how their loved one is doing on a regular basis. Cost: $10. You can test it for free.
Originally designed to keep track of kids, this little device can also be a powerful way to keep tabs on a senior in your home who might wander off. Clip on the Jiobit device and put Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS and multiple cellphone networks to work tracking indoors and out. There are several ways to securely attach it so it’s not easily removed. One helpful feature: You can set a “geofence” to alert you when the person leaves the designated “trusted place.” Jiobit even learns the person’s usual movements and alerts you if they go somewhere else. Costs: $99 with a one-year commitment plus $9.99 per month for a data plan.
Listening to favorite old tunes can improve the mood and quality of life of people with dementia. The Spark Memories Radio app makes it easy. A caregiver can schedule a curated playlist with the push of a button. Unlike radio stations or other streaming services, Spark has over a thousand songs going back to the 1930s. It delivers a decade’s worth of old standards designed to, well, spark memories. Co-designed by an Alzheimer’s researcher to be easy to use and effective, it works on any Android or Apple device. Cost: $9.99 per month.