Tuesday, December 16, 2014

How One Technology Startup is Driving Improvements in Outcomes for Dementia Patients

Imagine a little dog appearing on the screen of a small tablet computer talking to an elderly lady about her grandchildren. Sounds like some sort of science fiction movie? Well, in fact, it is a new elder care remote assistance service offered by tech startup GeriJoy, which offers a team of expertly-trained, 24x7 caregivers via a special tablet app, all for about the cost of a Starbucks coffee every day.

All this month, we are looking at how technologies and clever innovations are changing elder care. In this post, we spotlight one particular technology that has a huge potential impact on the way that elder care is currently performed.

GeriJoy is the result of an insight that Victor Wang, a MIT grad, had while considering the condition of his aging grandmother, who lived alone back in his birth country of Taiwan. Her children and grandchildren lived far away. Wang could see the effects of the social isolation on her mood and overall mental health. Eventually, Wang’s mother left her job to return home to Taiwan to be with his grandmother, even though she could still care for herself at that point.

Wang decided to apply his graduate studies in human-machine interaction and 3D rendering to build a solution. He saw an opportunity to create a new type of business with a social purpose. Wang’s vision included addressing the coming crisis in elder care due the shortage of trained caregivers. Currently, 5 million Americans have Alzheimer’s, requiring 16 million people to care for them.

Dementia is stressful for both caregiver and elder. Life’s little changes can be a difficult and confusing moment for a senior who is facing short term memory challenges. Even the end of a shift for one home caregiver can confuse the elder who might not be able to understand.

Meanwhile, on January 1, 2015, the US Labor Department will change the worker protection rules requiring the home care industry to pay minimum wage and overtime when a caregiver’s hours extend beyond 40 in a given week. Home care agencies are responding with a higher number of shift changes rather than pay overtime. Wang’s GeriJoy works with these home care agencies helping them to smooth the increased number of caregiver shift transitions.

However, the benefits that have been shown for the elder are not limited to just better caregiver shift changes. Because GeriJoy uses real people to interact with the elders through the animated application, it avoids the current limitations associated with artificial intelligence. Wang knew that the solution had to offer a meaningful human connection. Only another human could do this emotionally sensitive job for seniors.

At first the idea of a virtual 3D pet on a tablet computer appeared to be an unlikely solution. However, unlikely solutions are sometimes the best. For the elder, recent research has shown the importance of pets in their lives. For various reasons, though, a real pet can be problematic in a care environment or at an elder’s home. Allergies, regular walks, and litter boxes pose challenges for an elder, while a pet cannot provide the type and quality of intellectual and emotional support that helps to stimulate a senior’s mind.

Wang was surprised at just how effective his solution turned out to be. GeriJoy offers elders an increased sense of autonomy. Elders who may refuse care from a stranger because of pride could be more open to GeriJoy’s digital presence.

Some might have concerns about the possibility of this type of technology for reducing the time we spend with seniors. However, Wang explains that GeriJoy is not able to replace the physical elements of care giving. Instead, GeriJoy offers a much needed supplement to physical interaction. Often, the GeriJoy service has helped to slow the mental decline of the elder, while helping to assist the human caregiver with hydration, food, and medication reminders for the elder.

As we look five years ahead in the elder care market, products like GeriJoy will have an increasingly important role to play. Current trends towards more elders aging in place and the average age of residents in assisted living continuing to rise, there will be an increasing need to facilitate their care. Technologies like GeriJoy are part of the coming set of solutions towards improving both the quality and reducing the cost of long term care.

For more on how technologies can help with elder care, see this page.