Helping Alzheimer's patients

Feb 06, 2003, vol. 26, no. 3
By Diane Luckow

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New technology being developed at SFU offers promising new home support for people with Alzheimer's and their caregivers.

SFU assistant engineering professor Alex Mihailidis (left), in conjunction with Toronto's Sunnybrook and Women's College health sciences centre, has developed a prototype talking washroom.

It tracks what an Alzheimer's patient is doing in the washroom and, currently, prompts them verbally to wash their hands if they have forgotten. If the patient doesn't understand the verbal cue, the system will offer further prompts, reminding the patient to turn on the tap, use soap, wash their hands and dry them on the towel.

“Our goal is to develop a system for in-home use,” says Mihailidis, who joined SFU in July 2002 and holds an Alzheimer's Society of Canada/Canadian Institute for Health Research research fellowship. “We want to help people with Alzheimer's to stay at home as long as possible.”

Positive clinical trial results with 10 Alzheimers' patients at Sunnybrook and Women's College centre found that the patients responded well to the verbal cues and were not upset by them. Importantly, notes Milhailidis, caregivers' time to assist the patients in the washroom dropped from as much as 10 minutes down to 30 or 40 seconds.

The technology, which requires a computer and an inexpensive video camera, uses neural networks and planning recognition algorithms previously used in industrial and military applications. “We took these technologies and adjusted, modified and reinvented them,” says Mihailidis.

He is also now working on a visual cueing system that would give demonstrations, using the bathroom mirror as the screen, showing the patient how to wash their hands.

Mihailidis is hopeful that within 10 years, he will have developed a whole house system that can monitor and assist patients in daily tasks and that can be commercialized.

By the year 2020, the number of Canadians with Alzheimer's is expected to triple. Currently, one in three persons over 85 years old has Alzheimer's, while one out of eight people 65 and over has the disease.

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