Canadian researchers are working on the creation of a virtual assistant that could help people with Alzheimer’s disease do a better job of managing their daily lives.
A key feature of the assistant, which scientists call ACT@Home, will be its ability to align its directions with a person’s emotional condition. This is an important part of social interactions with Alzheimer’s patients, because their interpretation of a situation will dictate how they respond.
Researchers at the University of Waterloo, who say the assistant could be available in four years, believe it will make caregivers’ work easier.
“Convincing a person with Alzheimer’s disease to do something is very difficult because it depends on the person’s interpretation of the situation, what they think is going on, what cues they are getting and who they think they are in that moment,” Dr. Jesse Hoey, a professor at the David R. Cheriton School of Computer Science at Waterloo, said in a press release.
“This prototype will work by building a model of what’s going on emotionally in the mind of someone with the cognitive difficulty and then prompting them to complete an activity of daily living in a way that makes sense to them in that moment,” Hoey, the lead researcher on the project.
The virtual assistant will consider a person’s personality and state of mind by picking up on emotional cues. They can include facial expressions, posture, tone of voice, or the way a person is moving.
To understand how Alzheimer’s patients function and interact with others, the research team — in collaboration with colleagues at the Schlegel-UW Research Institute for Aging — interviewed patients and their caregivers.
They learned that as Alzheimer’s ravages a person’s brain, it becomes increasingly difficult for them to complete simple tasks. They may start to do something, then forget what they’re doing and why. By then, they lose motivation, repeat their actions or stop, researchers said.
Guiding patients through these moments has been the task of caregivers — often family members.
“Our ultimate goal is to help people maintain some independence while lessening the burden on their caregivers,” Hoey said. “The person they live with usually has to step in to help, but we are hearing that the amount of assistance and patience required can become overwhelming.”
The team’s efforts have already gained appreciation. They published two articles describing the ideas behind the project in American Sociological Review. The American Sociological Association honored them for most significant paper in social psychology and mathematical sociology.
The virtual assistant may also be used for people with other types of disabilities, the researchers said.