Special bike takes dementia patients down memory lane

Ottawa's Glebe Centre long-term care facility is using a special bike to help residents with dementia explore their hometowns and unlock old memories.

Bike uses Google Street View projections

Arnold Hagglund (right) takes a ride through the streets of Sweden as The Glebe Centre staffer Becky Helmer asks about his travels. (Susan Burgess/CBC)

The Glebe Centre long-term care facility is using a special bike to help residents explore their hometowns and countries they've travelled without leaving the building.

The jDome BikeAround is a tool developed in Sweden that uses Google Street View to take users a bike tour.

People sit in front of a domed screen while a projector shows the street from a computer. A set of bike pedals and handles in front of the screen allow people to move the image around and control what they're seeing.

But it doesn't just help residents get exercise, according to Becky Helmer, a program facilitator at The Glebe Centre.

"It has a lot of emotional benefits from the reminiscing and bringing the resident back to places they've been or places that they've lived," she said.

BikeAround is designed specifically for patients with Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia, and it's use in Ottawa is a Canadian first, according to The Glebe Centre.

Susan Gillmor and Arnold Hagglund are two Glebe Centre residents who use the jDome BikeAround. Google Street View images on the screen ahead shift as the user pedals a stationary bike and steers with the handlebars. 1:41

Memories tied to locations

Biking through areas that hold significance to people helps evoke memories from their past, memories they sometimes share with centre staff.

"People will tell you things and you're like, 'Oh I never knew that about you,'" Helmer said.

"[One resident] who hasn't been to P.E.I. in about 30 years went back to his family home, and got to travel on the streets where he used to see his friends."

And for residents who immigrated to Canada, it's a way to revisit their home countries.

'People are blown away'

"People are blown away because they sometimes think they could never go back," Helmer said.

For Arnold Hagglund, 89, who was born to Swedish immigrants, it is a way for him to continue to explore his roots. "My cousin lived right there, and his name was Rolf — what a character," he said, reflecting on one of his rides.

Helmer said biking through parts of Sweden even helped Hagglund regain some of his language skills.

"He's been singing in Swedish, which is really great."

Potential research opportunities

The Glebe Centre said the bike cost about $16,300 US, and an additional $200 US per month for upgrades and maintenance.

But they see it not only as an investment in the wellbeing of residents, but a way to potentially unlock new ways of thinking about dementia. 

Local researchers have begun to express interest in working with the centre to study the effects this tool has on people with dementia, according to Susan Zorz, the centre's director of resident services.

"There are those possibilities. We'd love to be involved in research in some capacity with someone who's interested in partnering with us," she said.

The centre is also encouraging anyone interested in volunteering with the new program to contact them.

With files from Susan Burgess