Social Robotics Research to Transform the Quality of Care for Seniors

NEWS - 06 Sep 2022

Queensland researcher Professor Wendy Moyle is using cutting-edge social robotic technology to redefine best practices in the care of older people and those living with dementia, through assisting their ability to communicate, enhancing the support provided by their carers, and improving their overall quality of life.

Professor Moyle’s research is highly topical and socially important both in Australia and overseas. With Australia’s growing ageing population and increasing rates of dementia, her team’s research has the potential to drive much-needed changes in the delivery of quality aged care in acute care settings, residential care centres, and the wider community.

Internationally recognised research into social robotics is happening on the Gold Coast

Professor Moyle is Program Director, Healthcare Practice and Survivorship Program, based at the Menzies Health Institute at Griffith University. Griffith University colocates within the innovation community Lumina, situated in the heart of the wider Gold Coast Health and Knowledge Precinct.

Professor Moyle opened the Social Robotics and Assistive Technology Laboratory in 2014. She and her multi-disciplinary research team are highly regarded internationally for their contribution to proving the benefit from the incorporation of social robots into aged care. Professor Moyle was recognised in Robohub’s 2019 global list of “30 Women in Robotics You Need to Know About”.

Professor Moyle has developed and evaluated several different assistive technologies and social robots within her laboratory, and all have a role to play in improving the quality of life for people with dementia.

“One in twelve Australians aged 65 and over has dementia, and that number is predicted to grow. We’re going to have, unfortunately, more people with dementia in the health care system and residential services. That means a lot of burden on that care system and potentially a poorer quality of life for older people,” Professor Moyle explained.

Social robotics in aged care aims to enhance human communication and connection, not replace it

Social robots are robots that use leading software and smart design to communicate and interact with humans in a socially meaningful or helpful way – as an addition to the in-person care that the person receives.

“We’ve learnt that in a 24-hour period, a person with dementia in a care setting receives an average of 25 minutes of face-to-face contact. It is very limited contact,” said Professor Moyle. She believes social robotic technology has a role to play in care settings and enormous potential to reduce the burden of illness on people with dementia and their carers.

“When I first started doing this work, it was unpopular. There was a fear among the community that I was trying to ‘take over’ from humans and replace them with technology, which was far from the truth. We are not trying to replace true human interaction; we are working to implement an additional intervention, that focuses on improving quality of life and helping people feel they are not alone.”

One key social robotic technology in development is called the ‘telepresence program,’ which aims to connect people with dementia to families living interstate or internationally. The telepresence robot is designed to engage in conversations with family and carers.

The robot looks like a tablet-style computer, attached to the top of a slim stand with wheels at the base. The robot moves, and through a camera and screen, the person with dementia and family can see and talk to each other. The family member operates the robot via software on their computer.  As a result, the person with dementia does not need to know how to operate the technology. This is important for a person with cognitive impairment.

Engaging with a social robot can help a person with dementia gain confidence in conversing with others

Another program is the ‘humanoid program,’ which aims to give people with dementia more confidence in communicating verbally. Professor Moyle explained that typically in the earlier stages of dementia, a person can become embarrassed by their inability to remember certain things and to communicate. This can eventually lead to the person stopping talking altogether. The telenoid robot is teleoperated, looks like a miniature human, designed to talk with a person and build their confidence so that they are encouraged to continue to engage in conversations.

“It’s a very cute robot. It’s small, and people are so inquisitive about it when they see it. It does some actions too, like dancing,”  Professor Moyle said. For example, it might start a conversation by saying ‘Hello, John, how are you today?’, which gives the person with dementia an opportunity to say something back and continue a conversation, or if they don’t respond, the robot will move on and try another narrative.

Professor Moyle’s team recently completed pilot testing of the humanoid robot within a dementia care facility last year. While official results are not yet finalised, the initial findings indicate a positive response throughout the pilot. Data revealed interactions where the person with dementia talked to the robot, the robot responded, and the person with dementia’s facial expressions showed a positive emotional response to the conversation.

Animal robotics can provide positive emotional support for people with dementia

Animal robots are another helpful form of social robots that Professor Moyle has researched extensively throughout her career. One of these robots is Paro, who looks like a plush toy seal and is designed to provide comfort, by responding to touch, temperature and voice; like pet therapy in situations where live animals are no longer possible. The study showed that incorporating Paro in dementia care settings could bring positive benefits for people with dementia, including reduced anxiety and agitation, and a decreased tendency to wander.

A multi-disciplinary team, collaborators, and investors are key factors for moving research into development

Research in social robotics within aged care and dementia takes a multi-disciplined team, and it can be difficult to find the right mix of people.

“We are lucky within the Institute and the Precinct itself to attract such a talented and diverse team. We have team members who specialise in technology, artificial intelligence (AI), and software programming, who also have an interest in dementia, and the health of others. We have a mix of backgrounds, including nursing, psychology, and engineering. Innovation is always of utmost importance, especially with keeping our robots up to date,” Professor Moyle explained.

The costs of incorporating social robotics technology in aged care settings can be restrictively high; for example, one Paro robot placement in an aged care home costs about $8,000. There are also complicated operational hurdles to consider, as each facility operates differently, depending on the provider.

Professor Moyle is optimistic about potential collaboration opportunities that could arise from current and future Lumina tenants. Cohort Innovation Space is fast becoming a leader in the start-up landscape, especially in health tech, and has tenants developing AI in medical innovation. “I would greatly welcome more entrepreneurial people around us in the Precinct, such as different types of health tech start-ups who may be able to assist us in moving our robotic technology into the next phase of development.”

Local community engagement in dementia research has a positive impact

Professor Moyle said the local Gold Coast community plays an important role in driving her research forward and knows the importance of keeping the community up to date with the research coming out of the lab.

“We open the lab to local community groups, school boards, and interest groups. It’s been really important because it informs the public about dementia and new technologies they’ve never heard of.”

It also provides an opportunity for community support such as fundraising, and to help the research team recruit new participants for their studies.

“We have built people’s confidence in what we are doing, and my team and I get satisfaction from the belief that we are helping to improve quality of life for thousands of Australian people with dementia. I feel proud of all the researchers in the programs, and what we’ve been able to achieve to date.”

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