Pioneering new technology helps ease dementia

In a remarkable enterprise psychologists at St Andrews University, computer experts at Dundee University, and researchers at the Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art in Dundee, have collaborated to produce a "memory jukebox".

The purpose of this amazing invention is to help dementia sufferers by rekindling lost memories with the aid of touch-screen technology.

The lives of this sad group are being transformed by clips from classic films, footage of pop stars of the 1950s and 1960s, and snatches of songs from hit parades of the past .

The system, known as the Computer Interactive Reminiscence and Conversation Aid (CIRCA), contains packages of film clips, once-popular songs, old radio programmes and photographs, which can be accessed via a touch screen to help spur people with dementia to begin reminiscing about their past.

So far the results of the research have been amazing.

In one poignant case, a 56-year-old woman with early-onset dementia, being cared for at home by her husband, began swinging her hands in time to the music, laughing and smiling when the system was used to access classic footage of Elvis Presley in concert, and as the King sang, she rubbed noses with her husband who later told researchers it was his wife's way of telling him that "she remembered".

It has also reported by many carers that people with Alzheimer's disease "seemed like their old selves again" after the technology had been used to help spark a conversation.

Dr Arlene Astell, of the School of Psychology at St Andrews, who is leading the pioneering research programme, says the results have been better than they dared to hope for.

She says they initially thought the system would only be used by care givers, but they found very quickly that people with dementia could use the system themselves and make choices about what they wanted to watch or listen to.

Many carers have been pleasantly surprised at how much people remembered and how easily they adapted to using the system.

Dr Astell says that "CIRCA exploits the fact that, even though dementia sufferers find it hard to recall recent events, longer-term memory is less affected by their condition".

She says keeping track of what is going on at the moment and being able to initiate conversation is their main problem.

Their declining ability to hold normal conversations causes a lot of stress and frustration so helping them access their memories makes living with dementia more bearable and less distressing for sufferers and their carers.

The research team developed the CIRCA system by adapting touch-screen technology already used in speech therapy.

The database is tailored to each individual case and the system is expected to become commercially available within the next three years.

The research team is now examining whether the system could also be used for people with learning disabilities or head injuries.

Gabrielle Colston-Taylor, the service manager with Alzheimer's Scotland, praised the new system, and says working with people with dementia, they are always trying to find ways to communicate with them and help them have a sense of their identity by connecting with their memories.

Colston-Taylor also says that CIRCA enables both the carers and the service users to share a new journey together and some of the results have been remarkable.

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