Use of technology in dementia care

April 04, 2022 10:02
Dementia’s Secret Angel App. Image: Jockey Club Centre for Positive Ageing

As the global population continues ageing, there are more and more people suffering from Alzheimer's disease (AD, or dementia). According to an Alzheimer's Disease International (ADI) report in 2019, it is estimated that over 50 million people worldwide have dementia, and every 3 seconds, someone in the world develops dementia . Therefore, it is expected to surge to 150 million people by 2050.

According to the Hospital Authority in 2017, the prevalence rates of dementia in Hong Kong is estimated to be at 5%-8% among people aged over 65, and at 20%-30% among those aged over 80. Inferring from this, as many as 100,000 people are suffering from dementia in Hong Kong, and the number is increasing year-on-year. Another academic study published in 2012 estimated that around 333,000 would be suffering from dementia by 2039 in the city.

So far, there is no cure for the disease. The medical profession generally believes that early diagnosis and treatment can defer worsening of it. Having said that, it is difficult to detect early symptoms of dementia, which often delays treatment. A recent study by CUHK’s Faculty of Medicine confirmed that brain magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) powered by artificial intelligence (AI) can detect early cognitive impairment diseases. The study showed that sensitivity in the detection of mild AD was 92%, which was 25% higher as compared with visual inspection.

People with dementia will gradually lose their cognitive ability. Their need of being taken care of in daily life, which adds psychological pressure to the caregivers. One of the worst nightmares of carers is the missing of patients. A study interviewed 576 carers for people with dementia through online questionnaire in 2021 found that more than 30% of the respondents had experienced losing their patients, while over 80% of them worried about the recurrence of patients missing. Thus, 40% of caregivers forbid the patients to go out alone. To help recovering missing relatives, more than 30% of carers would use devices with electronic tracking functions.

Various organisations have explored solutions with advanced technology for the problem. One of the examples is the joint efforts of the Jockey Club, St. James' Settlement and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology started the Caring Communities for Dementia Campaign. Introduced in 2019, an app Dementia’s Secret Angel enables family members and caregivers of those with dementia who are lost to share vital information. The app also encourages the public to help locate these missing patients through bluetooth automatic detection once receiving a lost-person report. In case the missing elder is in a Secret Angel’s proximity, the bluetooth can send the location data to the family members anonymously to reduce the search effort.

In her book Health and Longevity: An Empirical Study in Hong Kong, Dr. Karen Siu Lan Cheung, who is devoted to enhancing the standard of elderly services through gerontology research, mentioned that it is important to promote an elderly-friendly and supporting community, such as improving community facilities, from housing, outdoor facilities to transportation, to encourage the elderly to have an active social life.

To achieve these goals, we need more resources and supporting policies to meet the needs of an ageing society, especially for dementia patients and caregivers. At the same time, the general public should care more about the elders in their neighbourhood to show the spirit of mutual help and love, so that we can build a caring and inclusive society together.

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Adjunct Professor, Department of Computer Science, Faculty of Engineering; Department of Geography, Faculty of Social Sciences; and Faculty of Architecture, The University of Hong Kong