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"Smart" devices may help dementia sufferers remember to shut off stove, live at home longer

From the country that brought the world George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four comes a new, friendlier kind of Big Brother. This one is here to help people with memory loss live on their own longer. Engineers at the Bath Institute of Medical Engineering (BIME), at Bath University in England have designed and tested an integrated system that not only monitors people's actions, but can speak to them, contact help, turn off appliances and faucets, and even e-mail family and caretakers.

"The whole objective is to enable people to stay at home as long as they can," says Bruce Carey-Smith, a BIME design engineer. The system reports the wealth of information it collects—from potential problems to successful interventions—to health care providers. "It's about supporting—not about replacing—the role of care staff," Carey-Smith says.

He says the system has been installed in the assisted-living residences of two U.K. dementia patients about a year ago—and both trials report good results.

In addition to reminding people to switch off potentially dangerous appliances (and actually shutting them off and contacting help if need be), the system is designed to help people avoid other hazards, such as nighttime wandering and incontinence issues. The system, for instance, senses when someone gets out of bed in the middle of the night and automatically turns on the bathroom light to help them find their way. Or, if the bed senses a prolonged nocturnal absence, the system will play voice recordings that gently remind people that, "it's awfully late, perhaps you should be getting back to bed," says Carey-Smith.

Of course, a disembodied voice in the middle of the night could be enough to confuse anyone, let alone someone who suffers from diagnosed disorientation. "It was actually found," says Carey-Smith, "that as long as people could see where the voice was coming from, they accepted it, and it was okay." To minimize confusion, he recommends that family members or friends record messages so that users won't be rattled by strange voices nudging them to turn off the lights or oven. 

Aspects of the system, such as a bedside light that glows when a user gets out of bed and an automatic stove shutoff, are already available as independent units. But customizable systems tailored to an individual's special needs are still being perfected. The project's lead scientist, Roger Orpwood, I said in a statement that the systems could be available to the public as early as 2014. The estimated price tag for equipment and installation, according to Carey-Smith: £10,000 to £15,000 ($14,044 to $21,066).

The technology is on display today at the Olympia Conference Center in London as part of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council "Pioneers '09" event. Now if they could just develop a voice prompt to remind us to reread Nineteen Eighty-Four and all the other classics we've been putting off in favor of Big Brother reruns.

Image © iStockphoto/iofoto

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