If a team of Toronto-based researchers has its way, older adults and people with disabilities – including dementia patients – will one day have the help of robots.

The high-tech, low-cost helpers are currently being tested at the HomeLab, a physical mock-up of a furnished single-floor condominium unit at the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute.

Although robotic systems such as this are likely five to 10 years away from being widely available, the lab’s research manager, Dr. Jennifer Boger, says they have “tremendous potential” for supporting dementia patients and their caregivers.

"They are intended to help alleviate caregiver burden and allow caregivers to spend more time with the person, doing things other than helping with activities of daily living," Boger said.

While the thought of robots conjures images of humanoid servants, these robots are more like a system of sensors that can talk to the patient.

How they operate

A team of researchers from the University of Toronto is developing robotic systems to help patients who have cognitive disabilities, including Alzheimer's and dementia, with activities of daily living.

In the kitchen of the HomeLab unit, a system of sensors signals to "ED," a mobile robot, with a video screen face, to wheel its way up to the sink and help a patient with Alzheimer’s disease make a cup of tea.

The COACH system

This version of the COACH system is designed to help people with disabilities, including dementia patients, with hand washing. (Courtesy Dr. Jennifer Boger/IATSL)

"Turn the water on now. Try pulling the silver lever towards you," ED says in its robotic voice.

In the bathroom, another system of sensors called "COACH" detects whether the patient has difficulty with hand washing.

Mounted to the right of the mirror above the sink, a video monitor shows the patient how to wash their hands.

"Let’s start washing hands. Turn on the water," it says to the patient.

Dr. Sharon Cohen, a behavioural neurologist and medical director at Toronto Memory Program has observed the clinical trials first hand, watching actual dementia patients interact with ED and the COACH system. She believes patients can make a personal connection with them.

"There’s no reason why the individual can’t develop a relationship with an inanimate object if he or she finds it helpful and enjoys its company," says Cohen.

'20 per cent higher level of stress'

These systems could be useful given that the number of Alzheimer and dementia patients are on the rise in Canada.

Alzheimer Society Canada predicts that by 2031, the number of Canadians living with cognitive impairment, including dementia, may reach 1.4 million. This almost doubles a 2011 figure of 747,000 Canadians.

An estimated half a million Canadians act as family caregivers for someone with Alzheimer’s or dementia, according to a 2012 Statscan report.

​​With these rising dementia numbers, it’s not unreasonable to assume that more people will provide care for a loved one. However, caregiving duties also come with stress and associated cost.

Citing a 2012 report from the Health Council of Canada, Catherine Suridjan, policy analyst for the Canadian Home Care Association said caregivers who provide care to patients with dementia provide 75 per cent more care and have a 20 per cent higher level of stress than other caregivers.

Cherie Kok is a mother of three in Thunder Bay, Ont., who acts as a caregiver for her parents, both of whom have a form of dementia. She has helped her parents with everything from household chores to activities of daily living and says the longevity of the disease contributes to the higher stress.

"There’s no end to this," Kok said. "I’m seven years into this. The reality of it is you just don’t know when it’s going to be over."

Over 41 per cent of all family caregivers use their personal savings to lessen any financial hardships and spend $100 to $300 per month on expenses directly related to their caregiver responsibilities, according to a 2013 report from the Canadian Caregiver Coalition.

"We’ve spent a lot of money on manpower," Kok said. "We hired people to help make meals and even do some recreational activities with my mom."

Caregivers provide input

Boger says caregivers of dementia patients have been participating in the trials at HomeLab, and her team often consults with them first before starting projects like these.

"We often do focus groups or one-on-one interviews with caregivers to look at their opinions on not just how a particular piece of technology should work but also the use of the technology itself," Boger says.

Audio: Spark episode, Elder Tech

The research team intends to make these systems available at a reasonable cost according to its director Dr. Alex Mihailidis.

"Everything that we try to build around here, we try to keep not in the thousands of dollars but in the hundreds of dollars at most," Mihailidis said last year on an episode of CBC Radio’s Spark.

While Kok has not used the technology herself, she believes it could be helpful to dementia patients in the early stages of the disease. For example, she says her mother loved to cook but had to give it up soon after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

"If there were sensors in the kitchen to say, 'Turn off the stove,' when she forgot about a pot of boiling water, she could have enjoyed cooking a lot longer," Kok said.