Enabling people with dementia to take part in virtual visits – findings from early trials

Many people with dementia live alone and can become socially isolated by a lack of visits from family who live a long way away. Technology already exists which can link people together in the form of video conferencing for social, business or eHealth applications, but the technology interfaces are not suitable for use by people with dementia because of the associated deterioration of short-term memory. The Bath Institute of Medical Engineering (BIME) is currently working to develop a way for people with dementia to take part in virtual visits with their relatives, and to do so independently.

The long-term aim of this work is to explore the practical design requirements for such a system, and then to develop it by working closely with people with dementia and their families throughout the process. This initial work carried out at a day centre in Bath for people with dementia has provided valuable insight into some of the challenges and potential benefits of enabling people with dementia to engage remotely with someone familiar.

The set-up used two computers in adjacent rooms, linked together using webcams and microphones. For each trial, one of the day centre’s clients was seated by one (touchscreen) laptop and a familiar staff carer was seated at the other laptop in the next room. By using simple keyboard shortcuts, the researcher switched on the video link between the two rooms whenever the client successfully touched the touchscreen. This simulated the effect that touching the screen resulted in being able to interact over a video link. Different visual and audio prompts were trialled to encourage the person with dementia to touch the screen in order to start the video link.

The key findings included:-

  • People with even quite advanced dementia can interact via video link
  • Language plays an important role in the success of audio messages
  • Written text alone is not ideal for prompting
  • Carefully timed repetition in audio messages can increase success
  • Photographs and familiar voices seem to have a strong influence

These results are a further demonstration of the value of working iteratively with people with dementia using simple mock-ups before developing the underlying technology.

This work has contributed to a successful grant application to the EPRSC’s Research in the Wild call (part of the Digitial Economy programme). This collaborative further work led by BIME will allow the development of a proposed inTouch system, working closely with end users to define and develop the interfaces to meet the needs of people with dementia and their families.