Avatars a tool for dementia care

Imagine turning on your computer to talk to an avatar, a virtual person, for an answer when you don’t know what to do about your partner or parent who’s living with dementia and is distressed or confused.

Professor Graham Stokes, the global director of dementia care at BUPA, says such technological advances could be used in the care of those living with dementia, with the number of cases predicted to triple worldwide.

He says people should be able to remain in their homes for as long as possible.

“We have cookers, sinks, taps that are safe to use because they are designed to switch off whenever they reach danger point to prevent an accident happening, plugs that release water with a certain volume etc.”

While these are useful, avatars are taking advances in care even further.

Professor Graham Stokes at forum

“You’ve got a problem – it’s 1:30 in the morning, your husband’s distressing you – he’s painting the house, he doesn’t seem to know you, you’re at your wit’s end,” he says.

“You don’t really want to wait until 8:30 in the morning to ring the local social worker or GP for advice and [who] maybe only come after you’ve made an appointment.

“If you can turn on your internet-enabled television, connect with your avatar, say what the problem is and [via] the search engine, it comes up with advice and guidance in real time.

“If they’re emotionally enabled, which many of them now are [through] voice and facial recognition, they can even be a somewhat detached arm around the shoulder as they listen and then enable you to offload.”

He says such technology is likely to be utilised by the generations coming through.

“The first baby boomers are going to hit 75 in just five years from now and it really does get interesting from 2021 onwards because then we have a generation of people who are more used to Outlook, who are more comfortable with the internet,” he says.

Important role for communities

There are 60,000 people in New Zealand living with dementia but by 2050, that number is predicted to climb to 154,000, according to Alzheimer’s NZ.

The dementia expert says the international experience highlights that there will be continued pressure on the healthcare system which will be unable to meet demand.

“When confronted with the demographics of an ageing population and disease, which dementia is one, we have to accept that governments have not got the money to keep pace with the changes.

“I think what we have to face up to is that governments are hard-pressed – for many of them these are austerity times.”

Older man laughs next to son/grandson

Professor Stokes says communities will have an important role to play in meeting the gaps.

“If we’re going to enable people to live better lives, even live well after a diagnosis, then what we need are communities that are more supportive of those who are living with dementia and those who are caring for those with dementia.

“Communities need to be dementia supportive and inclusive so people with dementia aren’t just treated and accepted in a kind fashion, they’re actually valued and respected and enabled to live better lives.

“If you ask [somebody] ‘What would you want to make your life better?’ they never say they want more doctors or nurses or social workers.”

He accepts, however, that technology is only part of the solution with family carers becoming exhausted from being on call 24/7.

“I think that is a real conundrum. How do we enable family carers, most of whom are aged themselves, to support a person whose needs are getting worse and increasingly unpredictable?

“I genuinely think you can only do that for so long.”

“There’s an enquiry I’m chairing in the UK, [with some families] very much saying how they sacrifice themselves to their aged partner, and how that destroys them,” he says.

“You only be a carer 24/7 for so long.

“We can enable it, we can support it, but there comes a point where the rational decision has to be this is too damaging for the carer, we may end up with two patients.

“I think that’s when [you] need to have skilled practitioners, like social workers, who have got a lighter touch but they’re there and at that point where the stress is getting great because the dependency is getting great, they step in and say ‘enough is enough’.

“It’s not without failure, there is no guilt but this is a journey you’ve been on, and your partner, your parents are now more deteriorated and as a result, you now need to hand your partner or parents over to those can provide 24/7 [care].

“It’s not the end. You can visit those facilities restored as a wife, a husband, a daughter, a son, not as an exhausted carer.”

If you or somebody you know has dementia, you can contact Alzheimers New Zealand for support and services.