A team of Queensland researchers has found a unique way to help people living with dementia stay in contact with their friends and family.

More and more Australians are being diagnosed with dementia, and for many it can be a very lonely life, particularly if their relatives cannot visit them regularly.

In response the researchers have created a mobile robot with an inbuilt camera, which can be used to set up video calls between people with dementia and their loved ones.

Professor Wendy Moyle from the Dementia Collaborative Research Centre says the giraffe-shaped robot, named Gerry, is designed to facilitate video calls and has been described as "Skype on wheels".

"The giraffe is quite tall. It's quite a large robot and its head is greater or the same size as a human head," she said.

Professor Moyle says it would be kept inside the home of a person with dementia, but controlled remotely by their relatives.

"For example, they might live in the Gold Coast [and] their family member could be in Perth. They would call in to the robot, wake the robot up, the person with dementia doesn't need to do anything at all," he said.

"The family member then could drive - through their own computer - drive the giraffe actually to the person's bedside or if they're outside in the garden to connect directly with them."

Overwhelmingly positive

Professor Moyle says people with dementia have responded positively to the robot.

"This was a big question we were asked when we first started looking at using robots. What we found to date is that people are certainly not frightened. They're actually more intrigued by it," she said.

"They'll see the robot, they look at it, wonder what it is, their family member might come on the screen and often their initial response is, 'how did you get in there?'."

Gerry was recently tested at the Talbarra nursing home at Waterford, south of Brisbane.

Lifestyle manager Robyn Pickworth says feedback from family members was overwhelmingly positive.

"They can move it around to see the environment that they're actually living in or they can share an activity with them, talk to them while they're having a meal," she said.

Professor Moyle says while the camera could be switched on without the knowledge of the person with dementia, she does not believe the technology will be abused.

"There's nothing to date where there have been privacy issues," she said.

"I guess the advantage is the family member is logging in. They have to have particular software on their computer that we give them, we train them in it and then they're able to access their family member through that software."

At a cost of about $9,000 per robot, researchers admit it will be a long time before the technology is widely accessible to the 298,000 Australians believed to be living with dementia.

 

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