Daily life and routines — basically everything that once seemed familiar — may turn upside down when a loved one is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Those with the condition face many challenges. These can present with a medical nature, but a host of behavioral and psychological challenges are often most impactful, particularly for those who are faced with being primary caregivers for an Alzheimer’s patient.
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia. Dementia is an umbrella term for any condition that leads to a decline in memory. Additionally, dementia is associated with other cognitive difficulties, such as those associated with speech, language and understanding, problem solving and other essential skills that challenge a person’s ability to perform even the simplest of everyday tasks.
Nearly 50 million people across the globe are currently living with Alzheimer’s or a similar type of dementia, and one person develops dementia every three seconds worldwide. Alzheimer's is by far the most prevalent form of dementia, and the cost not only on health care systems, but as a community burden is significant, particularly on direct caregivers.
In 2017, one study revealed there are around two million unpaid caregivers looking after dementia patients in the U.S. This total includes family members who take on the care of their loved ones with the condition. In fact, the World Alzheimer Report noted the majority of those with dementia are cared for in their home environment, with the assistance of family members.
In this instance, where non-medical assistance is the primary source of care, technology can offer a great deal of help. It may provide access to education, skill development and psychological support that may both improve the health of caregivers while also minimizing the burden of their care. And technology can also help the patients living with Alzheimer's, as well as other forms of dementia, as well.
Pamela Wisniewski, an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Central Florida, reported to BeingPatient.com, “I think there are opportunities to introduce assistive technologies, especially in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, so that families can get used to the idea of integrating technology into their lives as the disease progresses.”
How Technology Can Help
Both Alzheimer’s patients and their caregivers can face serious daily challenges that affect their quality of life. For the caregiver, personal stressors and those related to caring for another person may all come into play. The personal burden may include problems such as anxiety and depression, difficulty sleeping and chronic fatigue, while those related to caregiving are often related to the symptoms a person with Alzheimer’s develops.
As a caregiver, one has to take into account not only the memory, language and executive deficits present in someone with Alzheimer's, but additional displays of aberrant behavior are common, which may add to the stress of caregiving. Research reveals 25% of Alzheimer's patients display agitation or aggression, 12% display repetitive speech or actions, 10% wander or are restless, 10% have incontinence, 8% suffer from late-day confusion, 6% have difficulty sleeping or insomnia, 5% refuse to eat, are paranoid and/or have hallucinations, and 4% refuse to take medication, have issues with personal hygiene and/or have difficulty swallowing food or liquid.
This information age that we currently live in may provide a level of much-needed relief in many of these areas, where developments in technology offer assistance, even in some of the most seemingly complex of situations. Access to the internet can prove invaluable as a resource, as well.
Current use of technology, such as smartphones and tablets, have provided a platform on which to develop devices that may be adopted by those suffering from Alzheimer’s and those caring for them. For example, assistive technology may help caregivers to better monitor when an Alzheimer’s patient wanders, by installing sensors that chime when a door is opened. Devices may also be installed to turn the lights on and off, close curtains or even help a patient to manage their medication routine through smart pill boxes.
Smart home devices may also provide more critical assistance. With their sensors and tracking ability, these devices may be able to detect events that take place in their environment, such as when an Alzheimer’s patient has a medical emergency at home. These types of devices, along with video monitoring systems, may allow caregivers to improve their own quality of life, since receiving alerts or video feeds can assist with remote monitoring, allowing them to take action even when they’re not in the environment where an event is taking place.
There are also more simple technologies that may ease the burden of everyday tasks for Alzheimer’s patients, their family and caregivers. There are both telephones and smartphones available that are adapted to being easy to use and come preprogrammed with specific functions an Alzheimer’s patient can use to stay connected with their loved ones. For both types of phones, pictures of a person may be placed alongside a button instead of a number, where that specific number is then preprogrammed to call an individual.
Specialized clocks may also ease anxiety for the patient and caregiver as well, providing easy-to-read dials that clearly distinguish time along with the period of the day. Alzheimer’s patients may experience altered day/night cycles, which can significantly disrupt their routine. However, these specialized clocks may help the individual to keep on track and also help a caregiver set a routine with their patient.
Below is a list of the top three assistive technology options that may offer significant benefit to the family and caregivers of an Alzheimer’s patient, as well as three devices that may benefit the patient themselves.
Assistive Technology Options
Technological advances in Alzheimer’s and dementia dominate in the area of providing solutions for safety and security that reduce the stress of caregiving.
It is also important to take into account the comfort of the living environment of an Alzheimer’s patient. A safe, pleasant environment adds quality to their lives by allowing a degree of independence while ensuring their safety. Studies related to the needs of people with dementia show the needs are no different than those of other patients with chronic conditions. Patients wish to understand their disease and maintain as much a level of normality as possible.
Tech for Caregivers and Patients
|Tech||Who it helps||Description|
|Samsung SmartThings||Caregiver||These highly customizable sensors provide caregivers with peace of mind when their loved one with dementia is still living at home. From sensors on doors and windows, to those that track activity, information is relayed to a wireless hub that can be monitored from a smartphone app.|
|Alarm||Caregiver||Sensors allow family members and caregivers to monitor various day-to-day activities of their loved ones without being in direct contact with them. By placing sensors in various areas of the home, activities such as spending time in bed or sitting can be monitored. The sensors can also be integrated with Personal Emergency Response pendants and can be programmed to send alerts in times of prolonged inactivity.|
|CarePredict||Caregiver||This is a wearable device that learns to predict the daily patterns of the wearer. Caregivers are able to obtain information from their loved ones related to habits, such as eating and personal hygiene, their location and more, to make decisions on intervention.|
|KISA phone||Patient||Staying connected is a critical part of emotional self care in individuals with dementia. Mobile devices that make it easier to connect with family and other loved ones, even when names and faces are no longer easy to recall, can be programmed with preselected numbers and have large buttons.|
|Amazon Echo's Alexa||Patient||Smart Home Assistants can help with everyday life and may ease stress for both patient and caregiver. These devices installed in the home can be programmed to relay prerecorded reminders, answer questions related to any topic and offer functions that improve a user’s quality of life. It may assist in the maintenance of a routine and can be accessed by caregivers remotely, which allows them to update or change the functions without having to be near the device.|
|2-in-1 Calendar and Day Clock||Patient||People with dementia may become anxious about the time and day. As the disease progresses, they may also confuse day and night. Multiple large, easy-to-read clocks placed around the home may provide a sense of routine and structure, reducing stress and anxiety in this area. It may also assist caregivers in implementing a routine, where a clock can reinforce the importance of time and dates for specific events.|
Special Considerations for Patients Who Use Technology
Smart devices are great for the individual who has not encountered the struggles related to memory deficits, learning and language difficulties or any of the other common symptoms a person with Alzheimer’s deals with. As the disease progresses, people with dementia may have reduced ability to learn new tasks, which impacts their ability to use technology. Loss of the ability to navigate these complex devices poses its own problems.
Eric Rosenthal and his daughter founded the company Alz You Need in 2016 — a website that helps caregivers discover more about the most helpful technology. Rosenthal, whose wife, Eva, was diagnosed with dementia in 2015, told BeingPatient.com, “I quickly realized that for someone with dementia, a smartphone isn’t so smart.” Eva would forget her code, she couldn’t recall how to search for numbers in her contacts and would not be able to find her last dialed list. In addition to the frustrations of using the phone, she would often forget where she left the device.
Access to mainstream sources of technology may pose an additional problem for people living with dementia: falling prey to scammers and fraudsters. News articles have proposed that financial scammers prey on those with early stages of dementia. A study revealed that older adults are overall more vulnerable to scams. However, those with dementia are at a higher risk likely due to changes in social perception.
To overcome these challenges, it is best to provide people with dementia structured access to technology, based on their stage of disease and on their current ability to manage everyday tasks. Technology should be based on supporting Alzheimer patients.
The Bottom Line
The easing of the burdens of stress and anxiety on the Alzheimer’s patient and their caregivers is of the utmost importance. Assistive technology is ever-developing as a means to provide a level of relief in these environments. In the early stages of the disease, gadgets and devices may provide people with dementia a sense of control, respect and independence. As the disease progresses, the need of these available technologies may decrease. However, for the caregiver, these later stages may be the time when assistive technology provides the most value — easing the burden of the known vulnerabilities non-medical caregivers face.
About the Author
Anita Tee is a nutritional scientist carrying a Master of Science in Personalized Nutrition and a Bachelor of Science focused in Genetics. Anita has focused her career on translating the latest scientific research into accessible information for the public. She founded her company, Fact vs Fitness, in 2015, which focuses on the growing science of gut health.