Sep 24, 2019

Voice-activated robots can leave people living with dementia “deeply distressed”


Robots are often touted as the answer to the looming problem of how we will care for our rapidly ageing population.

But a new report about the role of technology in improving care, says humans will always be needed to work with technology, and there are limitations to how far technology can be effective.

The report, which is titled ‘Better Care in the Age of Automation’, says the effectiveness of greater automation so far remains unproven.

“Some have pointed to new technologies offering straightforward replacements of human carers through robotics and smart homes as an answer but there is little evidence of these working in practice,” the report states.

Unfamiliar robotic voices can cause distress

The report, which was prepared by UK-based technology think tank Doteveryone, claims automated voices can be disorienting for people living with dementia.

“Users with dementia are often deeply distressed by an unfamiliar robotic voice reminding them to take medication,” the report states.

The report comes in the wake of a trial by Hampshire County Council last year giving social care patients Amazon Alexa voice-activated virtual personal assistants to remind them to take their medications and when their carers are due for an appointment.

In interviews with carers, Doteveryone found the Alexa devices left dementia patients “often deeply distressed by an unfamiliar robotic voice reminding them to take medication,” according to a report in The Telegraph.

More than just a reminder needed when giving medication

Lydia Nicholas, a program manager with Doteveryone and lead researcher of the report, said giving medication to someone who is living with dementia is often more complex than simply issuing a reminder. 

“What was flagged up to us by care professionals and specialist nurses was if you are on a dementia ward there is no point having robots telling people what to do as they will just get distressed and confused.

“Essentially, reminding someone to take their medication when you are in a social care context is not just a fact of flagging up it’s three o’clock and it’s time to take your drugs. 

“A lot of the time it is about convincing someone who is quite distressed of the fact that their medication is safe or reminding them to get a glass of water, making sure they have eaten with it.”

Technology requires training and careful implementation

The report also said some technology users found the device confusing. 

One participant in the interviews said her aunt confused her personal alarm for a button to press when she wanted coffee. 

“My aunt has a personal alarm that’s supposed to mean she can get help in an emergency, but she also has dementia. Her daughter asked ‘what do you think that does?’ She thought for a long while and said ‘I think I press it when I want a coffee.’”

Using technology can detract from human interactions

Ms Nicholas said using technology can erode some uniquely human capacities. 

“We’re often told that automation can take over the repetitive menial even, boring bits of work and so free up people to do that create emotional, complex problem solving that we’re best at,” she said.

“But ironically, what often happens when you technologise a workplace is the people being to act more like machines. You get them to tick off tasks that were generated by a computer. 

“You monitor their work in, say, 10 second increments, and all of that takes away that human capacity to build an emotional connection to build up respect and trust and to come up with creative, unexpected solutions to complicated problems.”

“Technology can’t replace care”

Ms Nicholas says, “We know that technology can’t replace care, but used well it could support the kind of structural and social change that we need to get to a sustainable effective and fair care system. 

“In order to get there, we’re going to need to listen to those people who are receiving those care and support services. We’re going to need to listen to families who care, to communities to the front-line workforce, and we’re going to need to invest in evidence that supports long-term joined up thinking about the whole system.”

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  1. I am not surprised that such a ridiculous suggestion has been given some airspace – we have a nation of robots already. Personal interaction is replaced by smart phones and every other form of technology and we wonder why a lot of people lack social graces, lack empathy or have any understanding of how important the human touch or contact is to the old and infirm or to the human being generally. The elderly are already isolated and lonely in a large number of cases so I can’t imagine that having a robot would improve the status quo even if it was just to remind them to take their medicine.


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