Picture books for adults with dementia go digital with new app

A Waterloo-based startup that has published six hardcover books for people with dementia is set to release 10 more titles on their new digital platform.

Marlena Books founder Rachel Thompson says digital books have fewer limitations

The new app allows readers to choose from 15 different titles and a list of accessibility features. (Marlena Books/Facebook)

A Waterloo-based startup that has published six hardcover books for people with dementia is set to release 10 more titles on their new digital platform. 

Rachel Thompson, founder and CEO of Marlena Books, said the new reading app would go live the week of Nov. 11. 

"We've had a lot of positive response over the last year, so we're really excited to build off that momentum," she told CBC News. 

The company decided to pursue a digital option in 2017, when Thompson began to recognize the limitations posed by hardcover books.

Limitation of hardcover books

She said customers were requesting more new titles than they could afford to print. 

They were also asking for the books to be translated into languages other than English, which she said was not an option for a small start-up. 

Thompson also realized that while it was possible for people to read books while they were in the early stages of the disease, people lost the ability to read independently as their dementia progressed.

She said she wanted to find a way to re-engage them in the act of reading.  

Residents at Saint Luke's Place in Cambridge tested the app. Feedback was used to tailor the app to the needs of people living with dementia. (Marlena Books/Facebook)

Accessibility features

The app — which is designed to be used on Apple products, like an iPad — allows readers to choose between 15 different stories and a list of accessibility features. 

Thompson said readers can change the font size, activate automatic page turning, and can personalize the story by swapping the main character's name out for their own. 

Later this year she hopes to add another feature to the app, to give someone the option of hearing the story read aloud to them. 

By spring 2019, she said the team plans to release a second version of the app, which would include translation to different languages.

And while Thompson admits the technology involved was initially seen as a barrier to the app's usefulness, it has proved otherwise.

"We really underestimate their capabilities," she said. "In a lot of our testing, we found pretty positive results."