In Vancouver last October, exhibitors at the AGE-WELL annual conference understood that Canada’s aging population continues to look for innovative ways to improve the aging experience, empower their independence and provide more choices. The creativity and ingenuity of these exhibitors demonstrated their devoted to creating a better quality of life for older adults and caregivers while generating social and economic benefits for Canada.
It makes sense for innovators to focus their research and technology on this mature market segment. Statistics Canada and a Bank of Montreal report finds today’s older adults better off than any previous generation after seeing their wealth quadruple since 1984. Seniors want to spend their disposable income on products and services focused on independence and mobility issues. Mental acuity is also a top concern, along with memory and mood issues.
And Canadians ages 60 and up are the fastest growing segment of Internet users, relying on technology such as smartphones and laptops to keep in touch with family, friends and work colleagues. It’s no surprise that they are keen to embrace new technology and innovations. Some of the latest were at the forefront during the AGE-WELL conference. These are just a few of the highlights:
Virtual Reality Spatial Exercises, designed by Dr. Zahra Moussavi, strengthens the spatial orientation of seniors and those with mild decline in cognitive abilities, such as memory and thinking skills. A person with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) is at an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s or another dementia. “My team has been a pioneer in the design of VR environment for diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease at its onset, separating it from mild cognitive impairment,” she says. “We are also using VR as a tool to improve spatial cognition – in other words, orientation capability of people with MCI and Alzheimer’s.”
Her team has designed a “typical” room with furniture and decoration and with 3D graphics that can be played either with a goggle or on a laptop screen. “There is an avatar in the room that can walk around anywhere that the user points to,” Dr. Moussavi explains. In each set of 10 trials of this game, there is a hidden target in the room that the user has to find. After a couple of learning trials, the player is challenged to find the target while their perspective of the room is changed, such as entering a room from a different door, some of the furniture removed or decoration changed.
“Gradually we force the player to use their GPS of the brain than the landmarks to find the target. By doing so, we enhance the spatial orientation of people,” she adds. Last summer, a 2D version of the game was tested on 20 healthy individuals and 14 people with MCI/Alzheimer’s, with “very encouraging results.”
DataDay is a mobile self-management app for people with early dementia or mild cognitive impairment. “Most people, once they have a diagnosis, go home and live life with dementia. We want to give people something they can use for personal support and greater independence,” says Dr. Arlene Astell, researcher with Ontario Shores Centre for Mental Health Sciences.
Using audio, text and visual prompts, the app guides users through their day. DataDay manages daily activities, reminding them to carry out tasks and activities, such as taking medications, going to appointments, preparing meals and making healthy food choices. The app also helps people track their cognition, mood and physical activity.
“By capturing accurate information on how someone is doing, the app can help users, caregivers and their clinicians decide whether or not additional health services are needed,” said Dr. Astell, who spent nine years developing DataDay. “It’s hoped that this will cut down on emergency room visits. And we can give people with dementia some control over their lives – and better plan services when they need help.”
Smart Condo is a research, teaching and learning space developed through a project involving a range of faculties from the University of Alberta, with input and support from Alberta Health Services and the private sector. Lead researchers professors Lili Liu and Eleni Stroulia have spent seven years on its development. They demoed Smart Condo – a suite of computer games to improve memory and attention – at the AGE-WELL conference.
“The idea is to embed sensors in your home – from ceiling to cushions—to monitor your movements,” says Stroulia. “Every time the user moves or does something, it sends a signal that gets collected in our software. For instance, if a person is going to the bathroom more often, that may indicate a urinary tract infection. We deployed Smart Condo at the home of a person suffering from bipolar disorder with the idea to analyze movement patterns. If there was too much or unexpected movement in the middle of the night, that might be an indicator leading to manic depression.”
Currently, Liu and Stroulia are talking with some companies who are interested in licensing Smart Condo and adding it to their product line. “We have also installed the software in a hospital and trialed it with two seniors there, so we know it works,” adds Stroulia.
DoVille is a virtual reality application created specifically to have a positive effect on cognition. It gets people moving and at the same time it delivers the wow effect. “I saw a need in a virtual reality experience for older adults and shut-ins, and to bring joy and relief to the user with new technology,” says Khal Sharif, Project Whitecard president and CEO. In addition to a game, DoVille offers over 80 soothing and interesting virtual reality videos shot around the world. For instance, surrounded by a herd of bison in Utah, you can almost reach out and touch one.
When Sharif was in high school, he volunteered to visit seniors in care facilities and that experience stuck with him. “We needed to solve the problem of people sitting in front of TV all day. They wanted to tell stories and be social,” explains Sharif. His videos get people moving, even if it’s only looking left and right, or swivelling in a chair. “Watching TV, you aren’t moving; you aren’t an active participant in what you are watching. Your brain knows it doesn’t want you to sit in a dark room. It hates that.”