Blog: Tech Developers: Stop Trying to "Disrupt" Dementia—It's Not Working

Posted by Dementia By Day on 2020 Feb 19th

Blog: Tech Developers: Stop Trying to "Disrupt" Dementia—It's Not Working

I can't tell you how many people attend my speaking engagements on dementia and then come up to me afterward to tell me how they are building an app. Or an integrative platform for families to monitor their loved ones. Or a special way to prevent wandering. Or a smartphone, iPad, smartwatch, etc., that will help "remind" a person with dementia of things they are forgetting.

Save yourself some time, and quit while you're ahead. It's not that I want tech developers to stop trying, it's just that they aren't understanding the problem from the get-go.

I spoke to a colleague yesterday who works with this population, as well. She told me a story about a community she'd been consulting with. "They were amazed that their beautiful application didn't work," she said to me. "It really was nice: it was a robot that helped monitor their residents and every resident was supposed to get an iPad that was tailored to meet their engagement needs...but, of course, the residents couldn't figure out how to use it!"

The community was shocked, however. "It only has one button!" they had exclaimed.

As my colleague and I talked, we summarized the inherent problem with dementia-related technology: it doesn't matter that your tech has "only one button"—it isn't addressing the real problem.

Here's the problem: people with dementia don't know what they don't know.

When you build a platform that encourages people with dementia to "remember" things, they won't know that they don't know the information in the first place. A great example is that electronic reminder calendar. These calendars tell you what time it is, what day it is, what the weather is, and what appointments you have that day. But here's the catch: you still have to look at it. People with dementia don't know to look at these things to get the information. Here's the other thing: they still won't remember the information after they've walked away from the device.

So, then you think, well, problem solved: we will build a smartwatch! Sure, you could build a smartwatch, but it would have to have big font, be easy to see and press, and you'd have to ensure that people with dementia wouldn't lose it or forget to put it on.

Here's the other thing: many older adults don't understand or like technology, are too far advanced in dementia to learn it, or just don't want to learn it.

My colleague and I discussed this problem. She has a company that brings tech to people with dementia, but then runs the tech for them. Her company was created to combat loneliness in dementia. Her staff brings laptops to their clients and then sets up a video chat with the clients' family members. They do this mostly in senior care community settings, because that is where it works best. Then, after the video chat ends, the tech staff leaves the community, taking the laptop with them. This type of tech always works...because it's human-run. For her company, it's all about the human interaction. Can technology help to combat loneliness? Absolutely, but only if it's addressing the real problem: humans need other humans to be right there beside them.

My other issue with this surge in tech development is that it sometimes makes people think that they can keep their loved ones safe at home longer than they actually can. For example, I've had clients' family members say to me, "Mom lives by herself, but we have a video chat app set up in the house, and we can always monitor her for safety." That's a nice thing to have, but it isn't going to protect your mom 24/7: she should still have a home care agency coming in to keep her safe.

I also had a client's daughter say to me, "Dad has a LifeAlert necklace, so he'll press it if he falls down. That's why I don't need to move him into dementia care, or get a home care agency."

Her father was in the other room, so I walked over to him. "Hey, Bill, what would you do if you fell down, and no one was here to help you?" I asked him. "Well," the sweet man began. "I suppose I'd...yell very loudly for help!" he beamed as he finished the sentence. I looked over at his daughter, but she was determined to prove me wrong. "Dad...what about that necklace around your neck?" she asked. "Would you press that for help?" Bill paused. "What necklace?" he asked.

I feel like, a lot of times, technology actually makes people with dementia less safe. It gives family members the feeling that they don't have to worry, because they have access to an app, a platform, a smartwatch, a locating device, whatever—and that just isn't true. These items are wonderful additions to an already-safe situation: be it 24 hour home care, a senior living community, or a family caregiver.

These tech developers mean well, but they don't understand dementia care. If you're going to build something to help people with dementia, involve a dementia care expert from the beginning. You may be a tech wizard, but if you don't work with people with dementia hands-on, you won't be able to get to the heart of the problem.