Robotic Seal Therapy? How Technology is Improving the Lives of People with Dementia  

DysphagiaDid you know that 5.1 million Americans are currently living with Alzheimer’s disease? As the proportion of the population who is over 65 years old continues to increase, this number continues to grow: by 2025, the number of people with Alzheimer’s disease is expected to reach 7.1 million, a 40% increase from the current number.

In addition to the cognitive, memory, and communication deficits that accompany dementia, many people also suffer from social isolation, anxiety, and depression. Because of these issues, providing care for people with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia can often be challenging. However, recent advances in technology are providing some exciting options in helping to increase the quality of life of individuals with dementia.

As a speech-language pathologist, I’m constantly looking for new ways to help my patients with dementia increase their communicative ability and overall quality of life. This means that technology often finds its way into therapy. For example, tablets provide a unique opportunity for those with dementia to interact with technology. As the touch-based design is often simpler and more intuitive than the mouse and keyboard based operations of a computer, tablets can make it easier to use technology. For those who are in the early stages of the disease, a range of apps have been developed to provide exercises that are purported to provide stimulation and improve memory and cognitive skills. There are also a range of apps that can be used to help aid day-to-day function. For example, alarms with personalized messages can be used to remind individuals to take medication or even to eat or go to bed. Talk-to-text programs allow individuals with dementia to create reminders for themselves, or to keep track of their day-to-day activities so that they can look back on them later.

A less conventional use for technology in dementia care is the use of interactive robots to stimulate social and communicative interaction. A little over a decade ago, a Japanese robotics company developed PARO, an interactive robot modeled after a baby harp seal. PARO is soft and cuddly and equipped with a range of sensors that allow it to respond to its environment. Because it mimics the actions of a live animal so well, PARO is considered a possible alternative to animal therapy for individuals who are unable to accommodate live animals for any reason. Even though he isn’t a live animal, spending time with PARO seems to bring similar benefits to animal therapy: studies have shown that it can reduce patient and caregiver stress, stimulate social interaction, improve mood, and increase communication. Although PARO is now widely available to the public, its $6000 price tag means that it is still not a viable option for most people. However, it represents the possibility that as we continue to make technological advances, technology is likely to become an integral part of therapy in the least likely of places.

If you have any questions or would like to know more about speech-language therapy, give me a call at (212) 308-7725 or send an e-mail to I’d be happy to chat and answer any questions you may have.

© 2015, Speech Associates of New York – All Rights Reserved


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