3 challenges when designing outdoor technology for people with dementia

Using technology to provide more freedom for people with dementia. This concept sounds ideal, but developers face many challenges in the design process. How do you deal with ethical issues and privacy, for example? The recently published guide ‘Using technology in dementia care’ outlines some of these challenges.

Several professors and researchers from Canada, the UK and the Netherlands contributed to the guide ‘Using technology in dementia care’. Chapter 5 examines, among other things, the challenges faced by people with dementia when they go out. Vilans researcher Sandra Suijkerbuijk: ‘It’s important to address these issues because the ability to move around allows people with dementia to be part of the community and plays an important role in their independence.’

Design and researcher perspective

Suijkerbuijk and Dr. Rens Brankaert, professor Health Innovations & Technology at Fontys University of Applied Science, are the authors of the chapter that covers the development of these technologies from a design and research perspective. This information helps people with dementia and their carers to find useful applications, but is also interesting for healthcare professionals and researchers. Among other things the chapter describes several challenges in the design process:

Challenge 1: the current limitations of GPS-trackers

The use of GPS trackers in the intramural care setting has become more popular in recent years. GPS is valuable in providing reassurance for employees and family. People with dementia have indicated that they also see the benefit of this. But one ‘problem’ with GPS-systems is that it only works in one direction. People with dementia are located, but they are not able to get out of difficult situations by themselves. To provide answers to this challenge, further development needs to take place. Researches see a lot of opportunities in combining technologies so that a broader deployment is possible. One instance where this happens, is in the project Free Walker.

Challenge 2: how to convey information that can be clearly understood

Navigation systems and applications, such as those contained in smart phones, can be used to enhance the wayfinding abilities of people with dementia. Challenges related to perceiving, selecting and processing relevant information from one’s surroundings make it more difficult for people with dementia to find their way. These deficits make it even more complicated to design an appropriate, safe and user-friendly navigation aid for them. There is evidence that images and landmark depictions can be of added value for people with dementia. Nevertheless, there are situations in which images can cause confusion, such as when seasons change or when people look at a scene from a different viewpoint than in an image.

Challenge 3: ethical issues

New technologies could also be used in a manner that raises ethical issues. For instance, to keep people with dementia indoors. One of the measures is called, ‘endless corridors’. This allows someone with dementia to take walks along a hallway, which in fact is a circular route, so they never reach the exit. These measures can be taken with good intentions, such as dealing with restless behaviour and concerns for safety. Nevertheless, this kind of solution fools people with dementia and conflicts with ethical values.

How to deal with these challenges?

The challenges need to be addressed by a person-centred approach and by engaging people with dementia in the co-creation process. But what does this mean for the design process? The authors describe this with two examples: the development of the new technologies, Happy Walker and the Homing Compass. Read more about it in the chapter ‘Technologies and the outdoor life of people with dementia’.