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Furnishing a house with memory cues

High-tech devices are being designed to make everyday life easier and safer for Alzheimer's patients and their caregivers.

September 15, 2003|Linda Marsa | Special to The Times

Alzheimer's disease is a slow-motion killer. It gradually robs sufferers of their memory and intellect, making them ever more reliant upon caregivers. Because there is no cure for the disease, most medications aim to slow its course, helping people to maintain their memory, intellect and independence as long as possible. Eventually, their homes could help as well.

Scientists at Intel's People and Practices Research Lab have devised an array of technologies that could help people compensate for their memory deficits while monitoring their movements in the home. Intel employees are testing the prototypes in their own homes to iron out any kinks. Eventually, modified versions of these four systems will be installed in about three dozen households across the nation.

These devices compensate for forgetfulness just as reading glasses compensate for weak sight, says Zaven Khachaturian, former director of the Alzheimer's Research Office at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Md. "With increasing longevity, the duration of dependency for Alzheimer's patients is getting longer," he adds. "If we can develop systems that add even a year or two of independence, that would be a big gain."

One is an electronic cheat sheet of sorts that helps the mildly impaired remember names and faces. Before an important event such as a wedding or business meeting, people with memory problems can use their home computer or television to view photographs of key people as well as relevant information to jog their memories.

Another device is designed to combat the social isolation -- and lack of exercise that leads to further deterioration -- by keeping workout buddies in touch. A series of sensors monitors participants' activity levels and behavior patterns. When the "house" detects that it's a good time for exercise -- the person could use a walk and they aren't watching TV, for example -- it sends a signal to the exercise partner, suggesting that a call is warranted.

A third, more complex, system was designed for people with moderate stages of dementia, who often can't recall the sequence of steps required for routine chores such as making coffee or doing the laundry. "People forget the order in which things are done -- they put their underwear on outside their clothes or don't put water in the coffee pot," says Eric Dishman, manager of the Intel research group that developed the technology. "Or they forget to eat or drink, which makes them dehydrated and exacerbates their dementia."

Thousands of sensors, which are implanted in the person's shoes and throughout the house, monitor movements, relaying information to desktop PCs, televisions or a radio. If the person has been sitting for a long time, for example, the television will offer a visual or verbal prompt to get up or to drink something. If the person has trouble in the kitchen -- if, say, the sensor detects that cabinets are repeatedly opened and closed -- a recorded voice will offer help and will guide the person through the required steps.

The fourth prototype is designed to relieve caregivers, who must constantly monitor someone in the later stages of Alzheimer's. A sensor network keeps track of the Alzheimer's patient -- whether he or she is standing or sitting in the bedroom or living room. If he or she falls, the caregiver is given prompts via a radio or the television.

"Caretakers often feel like they're imprisoned because they can't trust the person to be alone," Dishman says. This technology frees them to do chores in another room or run quick errands by providing an electronic safety net for their loved one.

"This is just the beginning," says Khachaturian, a science advisor to the Alzheimer's Assn. "By the end of the decade, one out of three households will be dealing with some family member who has a form of cognitive decline. We need to find ways to enhance their ability to be independent, and prevent caregiver burnout."

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About Alzheimer's

The incidence of Alzheimer's disease and cognitive impairment among the elderly is expected to skyrocket, lending urgency to the need to develop more economical and humane ways of caring for sufferers.

There are currently 4.5 million Americans living with Alzheimer's, which costs $61 billion a year in lost productivity and medical expenses, according to the Alzheimer's Assn. And 4 million others have dementia, a condition characterized by declining thinking skills and memory loss often caused by strokes, thyroid problems, depression and medications that cloud the mind.

By 2030, when the youngest of the nation's 76 million baby boomers is older than 65, an estimated 7.7 million Americans will have Alzheimer's, according to a study published in the August issue of the Archives of Neurology.

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