Memory aids for dementia

June 29, 2001

A psychologist at the University of Abertay, Dundee, is investigating the prospect of harnessing computer technology to help dementia sufferers and their carers to communicate better.

Arelen Astell has won £115,000 from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council for a three-year project to develop a portable "memory bank" of images stored on computer.

Dr Astell said encouraging Alzheimer's patients to reminisce was a well-established therapeutic approach. Showing patients images from many years in the past could stimulate them to remember events and generate conversation with carers. Sets of images were already available, she said, but these were limited and focused on public events such as the Queen's coronation.

Dr Astell is investigating the potential of a prototype machine developed at Abertay that could allow carers to scan in images that had special meaning for individuals. "It has to be interactive, and it has to be simple to operate," she said. "We're adapting touch-screen technology, which does away with the difficulties of using a keyboard and a mouse."

She is investigating which types of image will be most effective, for example, photographs or drawings, historical images such as the moon landings, or personal, of the patient's family.

"You could have a picture of a city that could lead you to different landmarks, or different music and songs. Some of the things we're looking at from old Dundee are to do with the history of the jute mills. I've had people break into song at the mention of a street where there was a mill."

Dr Astell will also study how patients react to being able to touch the image of a building that will then open up for a tour.

"One of the things that tends to make (patients) less communicative is that they can't necessarily themselves dig out stuff to jog their memories," she said.

"This aims to give them as much help as possible in sparking off memories, which makes them feel they are still able to participate, and helps relatives to pass a pleasant time chatting."

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