Project shows robots can help dementia sufferers

Resident Mary Gannon enjoying time with MARIO at St. Brendan's Care Home, Loughrea, Co. Galway. Photo: NUI Galway

Resident Mary Gannon enjoying time with MARIO at St. Brendan's Care Home, Loughrea, Co. Galway. Photo: NUI Galway

A research project led by NUI Galway has established that companion robots can have a positive impact on older people living with dementia. Such is the impact of this research, it has been featured in a new European Commission study analysing the impact on society of EU-funded research and innovation in technology for active and healthy ageing. The MARIO project is among 25 projects credited, and the only one in Ireland, with having had the most influence in Europe over the last 11 years. The project is also being featured across Europe this week on the EuroNews TV channel’s Futuris science programme.

Welcoming the listing among the top 25 projects, Professor Dympna Casey from the School of Nursing and Midwifery at NUI Galway, and MARIO project coordinator, explained the benefits of the research.

“Loneliness is a key public health concern across many age groups and especially for older people with dementia. We know that social health and social connectedness are important to the quality of life of people with dementia. Human companionship is the best way of promoting social health but the reality is that our health care services do not have the resources to provide this service. So we devised MARIO to be there for people living with dementia,” she said.

To develop the companion robot for people with dementia, NUI Galway put together a consortium of experts from the health care sector, robotics industry and dementia groups. This led to the three year EU Horizon 2020 MARIO project (Managing Active and Healthy Aging with the use of Caring Service Robots ), funded by the Framework Programme for Research and Innovation. The project involved five EU countries and a team of up to 40 people, and has just reached completion.

A key feature of the project was the user-led design in that the robot was developed with and for people with dementia. The result was MARIO, a 4.5 foot white robot with large animated eyes who can be activated by voice or by a touchscreen which he carries. This allows people with dementia to access the newspapers, listen to their favourite songs, provide reminders of upcoming events, store family photos and connect with their friends and families. Pilot testing of the MARIO robot was carried out with people with dementia and caregivers at three sites in Ireland, the UK and Italy for a period of over 12 months.

Professor Casey asaid that MARIO was an ambitious project from the beginning.

“We managed to combine an array of expertise through pan-European partnerships. We brought together expertise in robotics, semantic data analytics, artificial intelligence and interactive touchscreen technology, as well as healthcare and nursing knowledge. However, the most critical element were the older people with dementia and their caregivers, who welcomed MARIO into their lives and allowed us, through their insights and knowledge, to make MARIO into the success he has become,” she added.

According to a European Commission review of MARIO, providing adequate care to the elderly is essential to ensure that Europe’s senior citizens are able to spend their later years living a healthy, happy and independent life. But without support, many face loneliness, a lack of mobility and exercise, and forgetfulness on a daily basis. However, with the use of modern technology and particularly the development of robotic solutions, Europe’s elderly population can feel young again and lead a much safer and richer life.

The European Commission study considered the key achievements from ICT for Health research projects funded under FP7, the Competitiveness and Innovation Programme (CIP ) and Horizon 2020. In doing so it provides a useful consolidated insight across the ‘technology for active and healthy ageing’ portfolio.

Ageing poses one of the biggest economic and social challenges for this century. It is estimated that by 2025, more than 20% of Europeans will be 65 or over, and by 2060, one in three Europeans will be aged 65 or over. Furthermore, the ratio of working people to the ‘inactive’ others will shift from 4 to 1 today to 2 to 1 by 2060.

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