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Guide to Assistive Technology, Aids & Apps for Persons with Dementia & Caregivers

Last Updated: June 29, 2020

 

Technology has become more user-friendly for people with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias, as well as their caregivers. High-tech tools like location trackers can supervise and assist, while lower-tech tools like special eating utensils or clothing are also available to make life with dementia less difficult. There are even “voice assistants” like the Amazon Echo or Google Home that can help with various tasks, from medication reminders to remotely operating appliances. This article will describe devices for safety, help around the house, assisting with activities of daily living, improving symptoms, and more.

 

Technology for In-Home Safety

Appliance Use Monitors
Forgetting to turn things off becomes an issue as someone advances through the stages of Alzheimer’s, and so appliance use monitors are a good idea for loved ones to keep track of something like the microwave, coffeemaker, TV, lamps, curling iron, garage door, or CPAP machine. These devices plug into a powerstrip or wall outlet and allow you to monitor, usually on your phone, whether your loved one has remembered to power down. They can be voice controlled and allow you to easily turn something off if your loved one forgot. They can also enable you to adjust lights, fans, or the thermostat from afar. The cost is typically around $30.

Medical Alerts
Personal Emergency Response Systems (PERS), also called medical alert devices, can be a matter of life and death in the event of an emergency. Many of these devices detect falls, which is particularly common in persons with dementia, and dispatch emergency personnel to the home of the individual. They can also allow your loved one to contact emergency services with the touch of a button. Often worn on a lanyard around the neck, or clipped to a pocket, they often include other features, such as GPS tracking. Advanced PERS even utilize motion sensors to detect movement and alert caregivers of certain activities like extended usage of the stove. Watches with these systems are also available, but watches are not the best options for people in the later stages of dementia. More info on dementia medical alert devices.

Location Trackers
Wandering is a problematic behavior, which can occur for a variety of reasons, for many persons with dementia. Location tracking devices are the answer. They include GPS, so the wanderer can easily be located and avoids getting lost. These devices can also be programmed to alert caregivers if a person with dementia goes outside a specific area (“geo-fencing”). Small and easily worn on a lanyard or clipped to clothes or in a pocket, and typically costing about $40 and up, location tracking devices provide tremendous peace of mind for caregivers.

Another useful tool to deal with wandering is the SafeWander sensor ($79), which started as a special sock that notifies caregivers if their loved one got out of bed at night, but has been modified into a small sensor that easily clips to clothes and serves the same purpose, signaling that the wanderer is up and out of bed, and may need help in the middle of the night. Location trackers like SafeWander work through a smartphone app, notifying caregivers and/or multiple loved ones via their phones if someone with dementia is wandering, has fallen, or is out of bed at an inappropriate time. For more on smartphones and apps for caregivers and people with dementia, see below.

Voice Reminders
Voice reminder devices allow caregivers to customize reminders for their loved ones with dementia. Some voice-controlled technology allows caregivers to set a specific time for the reminder(s) to play, while others work via motion sensor. Devices that work via detection of motion can be very beneficial for those who are prone to wandering, as caregivers can pre-record a message that reminds a loved one not to leave the home at nighttime as he/she approaches the door. For persons with dementia who only have minor memory issues, a small digital recorder, such as a memo pen or one that can be hung around the neck, might be helpful. With this type of device, persons can record reminders for themselves and play them back later.

In-Home Video Monitors
In-home cameras can be aimed at strategic locations, like at medications in the bathroom or in the main living room or bedroom where a loved one with dementia spends the most time. Clear, continuous feeds can be monitored via smartphones or online. There are even cameras with speakers allowing you to talk to your loved one, like an intercom, and they can be programmed to send an alert if they don’t detect movement after a set amount of time. In-home surveillance cameras with motion sensors and an intercom typically run about $70 and up. More basic cameras can cost around $30.

 Did You Know? Studies are showing demonstrable savings for families who use remote monitoring, because of fewer visits to the emergency room, fewer long-term stays in the hospital, and fewer inpatient admissions.

 

Adaptive Home Products for Persons with Dementia

Clocks
A symptom of dementia is losing track of time. Clocks specifically designed to address dementia can help by plainly displaying – in large, clear letters with no abbreviations – the date and time as well as what part of the day it is. This means the clock will actually say “Night,” “Morning,” “Day,” “Afternoon,” etc. This eases anxiety by lessening confusion, and also helps maintain routine. Someone whose sight is failing can purchase dementia clocks that speak the time information out loud if touched anywhere on the screen. These clocks typically cost between $30 and $100.

Talking Photo Albums
Talking photo albums hold pictures of loved ones, each with a button that plays a recorded message explaining what’s on the page. This can be a great way to remember loved ones or fun times in the past, and the pages can also include practicalities like medication management (accompanying pictures of medicine), reminders of things like appointments, and instructions for operating appliances like the washing machine or microwave. A talking 20-page photo album typically costs around $40.

Dementia-Friendly Speakers
Music helps healing, so investing in a simple speaker designed to play favorite songs for someone with Alzheimer’s can be genuinely beneficial. Studies are showing that music’s effect on someone with dementia is striking. After 20 minutes of listening to music, people with Alzheimer’s in one study saw an immediate, measurable increase in happiness, eye contact, and talkativeness, and a decrease in fatigue. (For more information, click here). Some devices require only that a thick handle be lifted to start the music playing, and then lowered to stop it. There are also speakers whose settings are configured behind a large button, so the songs and volume are preprogrammed, and a person needs only press that button to start (or stop) the music.

Adapted Telephones
There are three types of adapted phones: adapted home phones, cellular / flip phones and smartphones.

Adapted home phones are preprogrammed with important phone numbers, so your loved one need not remember them or have them written down, and feature large, easy-to-use buttons. The Future Call Picture Care Phone ($33), for example, has actual pictures of loved ones’ faces on the buttons corresponding to each person. These phones can be used by someone with dementia well into the middle stages of dementia, while the smartphones listed below are usually only useful for someone with Alzheimer’s disease, or related illness, in the early stages.

Adapted cellphones; these are more traditional-looking cellular phones with simplified designs and large buttons. These phones are designed with seniors in mind, amplifying the sound on voice calls and responding to the voices of people who have poor sight. In the early stages of dementia, phones like the Lucia can help stay connected.

Adapted smartphones; if someone with dementia is already comfortable with their smartphone, then there’s no reason to give it up in the early stages. Some smartphones, like Greatcall’s Jitterbug Smart 2, are made expressly for seniors. The features include a simple interface with large text and an easy-to-understand menu of options, voice typing, and speakers that amplify voices so conversations are easier. Smartphones for seniors should also include one-touch emergency calling, in case of an accident.

 

Technology to Help with Activities of Daily Living and Instrumental Activities of Daily Living

Automated Pill Dispensers
There are several types of automated pill dispensers that cost from $35 and up and can be easily programmed to beep, flash lights, or make a signal when it’s time for medication, and dispense the exact amount required into something like a dosage cup. Multiple alarms can be set for each day, and there are even dispensers that record voice reminders, so you can be the one saying exactly what is being dispensed and why, further easing any anxiety that comes with taking medicine. As dementia advances, more expensive pill dispensers might become necessary for caregivers to monitor remotely. They’ll even notify caregivers if a dose is skipped.

 Did You Know? Voice assistants like Amazon Echo and Google Home can be programmed to remind a person when to take medications, and can also serve other functions like controlling appliances and making phone calls. See “Voice Assistants for Dementia” below.

Razors / Shaving
People with dementia may still be able to use an electric razor that doesn’t risk cuts, though pre-shave lotion is a good idea to make the process smoother. A good way to reduce anxiety in your loved one as you shave with an electric razor is to put a second electric razor in their hand and turn it on, which creates a mental connection to what you’re doing.
Gillette makes a more traditional disposable style of razor called TREO that allows a caregiver to shave their loved one with little or no water. The handle is designed to be held like a paintbrush, and holds a special lubricating gel to keep the face hydrated as the blade works. For more, click here.

Eating Aids
Special dinnerware and utensils make eating easier for someone with dementia, and can help maintain independence longer. Forks, spoons and knives with extra-large handles make gripping easier. Special plate guards (“food bumpers”) fit around the edges of plates to prevent spills and help scoop up food. Scooper plates with higher, rounded edges are also useful, as are dinnerware with suction cups that prevent moving or sliding.

Elevated Toilets
Making it easier to sit up and sit down on the toilet is a simple way to help someone who has difficulty going to the bathroom (toileting difficulty is a common symptom of dementia in the middle and later stages). Elevated toilets are easier to use for older people who have difficulty. Installing grab bars next to the toilet is also a good idea.

Sliding Transfer Seat
Getting into and out of the bathtub or shower is difficult and can even be dangerous for people with mobility problems from middle- to late-stage dementia. A special swiveling chair (called the Carousel from Platinum Health) easily sets up a rail running in and out of the tub. A person need only sit on the padded seat to slide into the tub, and then out again, without needing to step over the edge or be lifted. The Carousel is available here.

Three-Sided Toothbrush
As dementia advances, brushing teeth becomes more difficult. A caregiver may have to actually take over and brush your loved one’s teeth. Using a children’s toothbrush is a good idea because the bristles are soft, but you want to find one with a longer handle. Another good tool is the 3-sided toothbrush whose bristles touch the tooth on every surface simultaneously, so brushing is faster and easier. The company Dentrust makes a three-headed toothbrush available here.

Adaptive Clothing
For people with dementia, one of the problems with getting dressed or changing clothes can be difficulty with buttons or zippers. Special clothing is available, however, that uses tricks like velcro under fake buttons or openings in the back of shirts and pants (for people in wheelchairs), to make clothes look adaptive. Buck & Buck sells clothing options including a back-zip jumpsuit that looks like a shirt and pants, designed specifically for people with dementia who may be prone to inappropriate undressing.

 

Using Voice Assistants (Amazon Echo & Google Home) for Dementia

Google Home and Amazon Alexa (also called Amazon Echo) are countertop devices that don’t take up much space and provide help for people with dementia and their caregivers. Both devices can be programmed (by the caregiver or a loved one) to change the thermostat and turn lights and appliances on or off with a simple spoken command. They can also play music, make calls, answer questions, and tell jokes or riddles. The alarm feature on both types of devices can be set to remind a person when it’s time to take medications.
It’s important to remember that these devices need to be set up ahead of time to respond to your loved one’s voice commands. A person with dementia can use Home or Alexa only after someone else has spent time getting them ready.

Amazon Echo Show
Another smart option is Amazon’s Echo Show ($90-plus), which has a five-inch screen and, with its Drop-In feature, can be programmed to initiate two-way video calls without the need to press a button. This means if you receive a phone call, it just comes up, instantly (visually) connecting the caller without the moments of confusion so common with smartphones. Because Echo Show responds to voice commands, rather than a remote or phone app, it’s much easier for someone with dementia to use. It’s options are the same as Alexa: Echo can show videos and photographs, plays music, and will tell jokes or riddles.

Google Nest Hub
Similar to the Amazon Echo Show, Google Nest Hub ($80-plus) is a seven-inch screen that usually looks like a digital photograph frame (and can, in fact, be programmed to scroll photos of loved ones when not in use). The Nest Hub does not have the Drop-In feature that is useful for the Amazon Echo Show described above, but Google’s Nest Hub and Home voice assistants are famously better at answering questions than Amazon’s products because of the Google search engine.

Another feature unique to the Next Hub is controlling the brightness of its photos to match ambient lighting in the room, so they don’t look digital. This can be important for someone with dementia who’s especially sensitive to bright lights and distractions. If displaying photographs is important to your loved one, Google’s Nest Hub is the best option.

 

Smartphone Apps for Alzheimer’s and Dementia

Technology can be overwhelming to someone with dementia, but the large, tactile surfaces of tablets and bigger smartphones have made it easier for people with dementia, particularly in earlier stages, to communicate or pass the time.

For Entertainment / Brain Training
Mindmate (free) has daily activities and games designed to improve brain health, and can be customized for your loved one depending on the level of thinking impairment. The app has mental exercises and even physical exercises, and tracks progress. It includes nutrition advice and clips of classic movies, music, and TV from decades past.

My Reef 3D Aquarium (free) comes highly recommended for people with dementia. The app lets you customize a tank of fish swimming around on the screen, which can soothe someone with Alzheimer’s. The fish react to touching the screen, as though they’re in a real tank.

Let’s Create! Pottery (free) provides an activity that simultaneously calms and encourages creativity. Simply touch the spinning clay to smooth its sides into a unique vase or pot, and save favorites into a collection.

For Safety / Caregiving
It’s Done! ($2.99) isn’t for reminders, but rather lets you confirm that important tasks have been finished already. Don’t remember if the stove’s been shut off or you took your medication? Check the app for a check mark. It can also email loved ones to confirm things have been finished.

Talking Mats (free) allows the user to communicate through pictures and symbols. Ideal for someone who has difficulty speaking and explaining, Talking Mats can express specific ideas (there are pictures for settings and actions), and emotional states.

Iridis (free) is for caregivers who need to make a space like home or a hospital room more accommodating for a person with dementia. Described as a “dementia design audit tool,” the app assesses the space and provides a report with suggestions like color contrasts and lighting improvements that could make a difference in comfort and safety for your loved one.

Carezone (free) is a helpful tool for managing all medical care, useful for someone in the early stages of dementia and caregivers during the later stages. The app easily organizes lists of medications, sets reminders of when to take them, orders refills, and keeps track of doctor appointments.

 

Futuristic Technology to Help Person with Dementia

Telepresent Robots
A more expensive ($12,000!), but futuristic and spectacular, option is Giraff, a “telepresence robot” that allows you to visit your loved one and move about the home without actually being there. Giraff is a screen on a post that is controlled from a distance, via a mouse over the internet. Giraff is on sturdy wheels, so it can freely move about, and the screen angles up and down. Answered via remote control, it can give your loved one the feeling you are in the room, and allows you to visit remotely, and check everywhere around your loved one for issues like safety hazards or messes. More.

Robotic Pets
Studies have also demonstrated that a low-maintenance pet eases anxiety and lessens behavior problems for persons with Alzheimer’s or a related dementia. Well, it doesn’t get lower maintenance that a robotic cat designed specifically to help the elderly. Joy For All’s Companion Pet ($99) is a cat whose fur has a realistic feel, and its purr is meant to simulate actual purring by a friendly cat. It moves realistically, and sensors enable it to respond to petting and hugging. It even rolls over for belly rubs. At night it yawns and nods off. It also meows, but not too much. More.

Wearable Detection Devices
These are still in the development phase, but worth mentioning. Companies are working on wearable devices, like fobs that fit in the pocket or special watches, that record data including how a person walks, their heart rate, and sleeping patterns. The data is analyzed by artificial intelligence and could be used to diagnose a person with dementia before the symptoms present themselves in a way that could be identified by health professionals. This would be a game changer, because early detection is the most important part of treating the symptoms of dementia. The Early Detection of Neurodegenerative Diseases (EDoN) organization announced the project in 2020 and hopes to unveil it widely within three years.

Augmented Reality Glasses
Another promising technology to expect in the next few years is smart assistive glasses (or augmented reality glasses) for people with early- to middle-stage dementia. AR glasses encourage independence by helping the wearer stay safe and providing help with finding objects, getting directions, or knowing the names of people the wearer sees. The glasses can show a person information, in a large script that’s easy to read, about what they’re seeing, in a way that doesn’t actually block vision. AR glasses would also work like some of the devices above: tracking in case of wandering, notifying emergency services in the event of an accident like a fall, and setting “geofences” to detect whether the wearer has left a designated safe area.