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Pioneering technology set to transform support for people living with dementia in their own homes

by Lisa Carr

A ground-breaking multi-million pound centre for research into the use of technology to improve dementia care has officially opened.

The UK Dementia Research Institute Care Research & Technology Centre brings together scientists from a range of backgrounds, including medicine, engineering, computer science and synthetic biology to develop a range of innovative ‘smart’ technologies – from artificial intelligence to sleep monitoring – to enable people affected by dementia to live safely and independently in their own homes for as long as possible.

The centre is based within the brand-new Sir Michael Uren Hub at Imperial College London’s White City campus and the University of Surrey, with clinical monitoring led from Surrey & Borders Partnership NHS Foundation Trust.

Around 900,000 people in the UK have dementia, of which over 60 per cent are living in the community. According to a report by Alzheimer’s Society, 85 per cent of people would choose to live at home for as long as possible if they were diagnosed with dementia.

The centre was officially opened by Gillian Keegan, Minister of State for Care and Mental Health, at a launch event taking place on Wednesday afternoon, where the minister joined participants in the research to unveil a plaque commemorating the event.

The Care Research & Technology Centre is one of seven national centres that collectively make up the UK Dementia Research Institute (UK DRI), and is funded by the Medical Research Council, Alzheimer’s Society and Alzheimer’s Research UK.

A unique dementia care ‘test bed’ has been established in partnership with Surrey and Borders Partnership NHS Foundation Trust, Hammersmith & Fulham Council and Hammersmith & Fulham Primary Care Network, with support from Howz and technology providers including Withings and Develco. The innovative technologies and new care approaches are currently being evaluated by around 80 people with dementia or mild cognitive impairment and their carers. The diverse team are working together to develop the next generation of digitally enabled health and social care.

‘Living labs*’ at Imperial and the University of Surrey allow technology to be investigated in a mock apartment before use in the home.

The technology currently being developed and evaluated for use in dementia care includes:

  • An intelligent digital platform (“Minder”) that links information and uses machine learning to identify health risks and social care needs
  • Activity sensors that record information in the background. For example, motion and activity sensors that monitor a person’s movement around the home,
  • Under-mattress technology to monitor sleep quality, breathing and vital signs.
  • Home diagnostics using advanced biological methods to identify urinary tract infections (UTIs).
  • Home radar to measure movement and vital signs unobtrusively to identify the effects of dementia on behaviour, changes in sleep patterns and falls.
  • Conversational agents, building on existing technologies such as Amazon’s Alexa, to support home activities.

The data collected in the study is used to continuously assess a person’s physical and mental wellbeing, sending alerts to the research team if any irregularities are recorded that could indicate potential problems. For example, abnormally frequent visits to the bathroom will be flagged by the system as indicative of a possible urinary tract infection, which can then be confirmed with a urine test.

In the near future, the team plan to expand the study and test it in a wider cohort of people affected by dementia.

Professor David Sharp, Centre Director at the UK Dementia Research Institute Care Research & Technology Centre at Imperial College London, said:

“We are thrilled to be officially underway with this research, taking a positive step towards a future where people living with dementia are well supported in their own homes. Historically, people have often received very little support at home which leads to preventable problems. Latest figures suggest one in four hospital beds are occupied by people with dementia – and 20 per cent of these admissions are due to avoidable causes such as falls, dehydration and infections.

“We are already seeing benefits of the technology we have developed on the lives of the people trialling it in their homes, helping them to feel safe, and supporting them to remain in their own homes. The new technologies allow us to intervene at an early stage when needed, to prevent the crises that so often lead to hospital stays, or a move to a care home.”

Minister for Care and Mental Health Gillian Keegan said:

“Dementia is a top priority and we will publish a 10-Year plan later this year that will focus on how new medicines and emerging science and technology can be harnessed – alongside diagnosis, risk reduction and prevention – to improve outcomes for people with dementia.

“I have seen first-hand how difficult dementia can be on those living with it and their loved ones, which is why it’s vital they get the right support they need at the right time.

“The Care and Research and Technology Centre is already leading the way in pioneering work – developing innovative technology to help people affected by dementia live safely and independently in their own homes and is a brilliant example of the investment the government is putting into dementia research.”

Dr Richard Oakley, Associate Director of Research at Alzheimer’s Society, said:

“We want people with dementia to be able to stay independent and in control of their lives for as long as possible, which is why we’ve helped fund the UK DRI Care Research and Technology Centre and their exciting innovations like the Minder platform – which will monitor the health of people at home to ensure they receive care and treatment as early as possible.

“Fantastic innovations like this could be a gamechanger for people diagnosed with dementia over the next decade, helping them stay living independently at home for as long as possible. Though it’s daunting, getting a timely dementia diagnosis gives people the best chance to get the support they need, and get access to the latest breakthroughs in technology and treatments.  This Dementia Action Week, Alzheimer’s Society is urging anyone worried about their memory to take the first step, and come to the charity for information and advice.”

Zohra, a carer for her husband, who is a participant in the Minder study, said:

“As carers, we don’t know how the person we’re caring for is going to progress – how quickly they will get worse. My husband’s memory and comprehension is slowly declining.

“We have these sensors in various parts of the house, you don’t even realise that they’re there. The monitoring team know if someone is active, and whether there is any change in their routine. All the data goes directly to the team via the Minder app. It’s very easy and straightforward to use, and it acts as a kind of invisible support for carers. I think every person with dementia should have these sensors in their home.”

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