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Social Robots to help in Dementia Care

Social robots are a form of assistive technology for the elderly and people suffering from cognitive impairment and mental health disorders. Social Robots are designed to provide companionship, maintain independence, improve social interactions and enrich the quality of life. The success of social robots is most predominant in helping people with Dementia so far. 

There is a need for social robots for dementia care in India due to the aging population which leads to increasing incidence of the disorder. The lack of availability of informal caregivers and low-cost effective interventions also reinforces the need for Social Robots to help people with Dementia. Since many studies have proven that Social Robots help with agitation episodes in dementia patients, many researchers are trying to make them accessible especially in the low income countries. 

Some of the social robots that have been integrated into Dementia Care include: 

  1. NeCoRo: a robotic cat, with the ability to adjust to itself to match the user’s level of activity
  2. PARO: a robotic baby harp seal that makes seal noises to calm the user now
  3. AIBO: A robotic Dog 
  4. EVA: A conversational robot that is being trialled in Mexico

Several researchers are developing a Hybrid Face Robot (HFR) which can be remotely controlled to express six different emotions. The Hybrid Face Robot is also cost effective as it only needs a tablet, a three dimensional printed face plate and a stand to mount it. 

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In a webinar conducted by MedPiper Technologies and JournoMed along with Bombay Psychiatric Society, Schizophrenia Research Foundation India (SCARF), and Indian Association of Private Psychiatry titled “Decoding Digital Mental Health Ecosystem in India”, expert speaker, Dr. Sridhar Vaitheeswaran, Assistant Director & Consultant Psychiatrist at Dementia Care in SCARF (DEMCARES) spoke about a study on introducing social robots to help with Dementia Care in India. The event was moderated by Dr Avinash Desousa, Consultant Psychiatrist and chaired by Dr. Anu Kant Mittal.

The study incorporates a mixed-method design and the feasibility was explored through five different stages:

Stage 1: The researchers studied different review papers and research projects on the use of social robots in Low and Middle Income Countries so as to determine the direction of their future projects. They found that there was a limited number of studies based in Low Income countries with Eva being the first of its kind in Mexico and it was even lesser in India. 

Stage 2: This stage was about understanding the acceptability and adaptability of Social Robots in India. When the idea of a social robot was introduced for the study, many professionals were hesitant but the caregivers of people with dementia were very keen and receptive. The caregivers expressed that their burden would be reduced and suggested the use of better AI technology so as to hold a better conversation with the people with dementia. 

Stage 3: This stage assessed the recognition evaluation of Hybrid Face Robot’s emotive responses. An Expert Review Panel rated the appropriateness of Indian photographs for human expressions and tested the HFR’s emotive responses. The HFR was then used to react to the pictures of two groups with one group consisting of people with dementia and the control group made up of healthy individuals. 

The results showed that the HFR responded poorly to both the groups. This could be attributed to the HFR being developed in the UK and was only able to detect the emotive responses of the people in that region. Thus these findings indicate the need for the cultural adaptation of the HFR’s emotive responses. 

Stage 4: This stage included developing an intervention plan for pilot testing the HFR which was determined by the results of the first three stages. The plan was composed of the following parameters

  1. The people with dementia had a 30-min session with the HFR once a week
  2. The HFR performed activities that could be used to engage the people with dementia such as reading the newspaper and listening to music. 
  3. Better strategies for improving social engagement of the patients. 

Through the HFR, the respective clinician was also able to monitor the patient’s health, mental status and agitation episodes. 

Stage 5: The HFR was tested on one person with dementia (age 67) with a total of three sessions and the pre- and post- mood were assessed using a face scale. Observational measure of engagement was also used to understand the interaction of the patient with the HFR. The results were encouraging as the duration of the sessions with the HFR increased with each session. Despite there being technical difficulties, the caregiver saw that the patient’s cognition and social interactions had significantly improved.  

Future work of this project includes addressing the technical difficulties of the HFR, testing the HFR on a larger scale and cultural adaptation of the HFR to improve emotive responses to people with dementia in India. The project will also include the use of a BrainBot (currently being developed at the Imperial College of London) that will engage users with an attentive face robot to communicate using natural language and facial expressions. 

The social robots and the BrainBot will ensure that a person with dementia is independent, monitor their mental and physical health (through extra wearables) and also help with reminiscence therapy. Dr. Vaitheeswaran also believes that the social robots will help with people suffering from other mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder. 

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