Through the volunteer organization I formed, Chess-for-a-Cause, I meet with seniors from different memory care, assisted living and senior centers in the metro Atlanta area. I am amazed by the excitement and expectation with which they dress-up and wait for meeting all of us every week. Their loneliness is visceral for me. A fragmented social fabric may be to blame for this void. I sense their continuous, internal struggles between inner emotions of abandonment and outward appearances of normalcy.
With a 25:1 ratio of residents to caregivers, nobody has time to listen to them. For the overworked, stressed-out caregivers, and people with dementia who are overly-dependent on them, over the months and years, they disconnect from the society and life goes on. The absence of an easily-accessible outlet to share feelings forces people into a continuous struggle between inner emotions and outer appearances.
There is overwhelming evidence that interactions with pets and friends can be beneficial, but both options are not available 24/7/365, and do not offer a permanent solution. Suppressed emotions if unhandled lead to social alienation, depression, and other serious mental health issues. As research continues to point to loneliness as a major antecedent of both primary and secondary mental health problems, resolving loneliness is of extreme importance in improving the lives of people with dementia and their caregivers.
Loneliness is a universal ailment, whether a child, adult, or senior. Dr. Fritz Pappenheim has explored the plight of the alienated individual and described its occurrence in three forms: alienation from self, alienation from fellow men, and alienation from fellow humans. In modern times, people are transformed into inflatable figures in the face of social media and false pretenses. Today over 50% of the population is experiences loneliness. For seniors, it is 75%.
This can be attributed to fragmented social fabric with nuclear households, single-parent homes, and so on.
Our solution provides a 24/7/365 digital companion to the public that uses cognitive analytics and the Persuasion, Facilitation, and Repetition model of psychological persuasion to provide an immediate outlet with feedback for strong emotions, to advise, and over a period of time, to record emotional patterns, reports and recommendations. The conversation reduces stress , and the data collected help detect and correct potential mental health issues.
Being able to communicate is key to alleviating mental health challenges. Most of the today’s adult population is lonely and have no one to talk to freely. Di-Com acts as a trusted adviser who is smart enough to advise and alert a person of potential mental health issues.
What sets us apart is that we can make Di-Com easily accessible even to people with dementia because of the verbal interface. We’ll also be generating a larger data set from recording daily (unlike other expensive diagnostic tools), and using psycho analytics (recording historical patterns to enable prevention, early detection and informed correction for mental health issues). Our flexible delivery model will also cater to communal/residential and individual needs.
Our solution is primarily centered around human needs to relieve emotions by speaking to someone. It provides enough privacy for the individual while giving institutions an opportunity to come in and provide necessary help in a timely manner. Also, it is very accessible for older people as it overcomes the digital divide by getting into vocal conversations instead of typing. Human-Centric: Our machine learning ability allows us to learn and make our interactions suitable for the individual needs. For example, whether a silent walk or listening to music soothes your mind is deeply personal and hence requires personalized handling, hence our application does not try to suggest solutions. We would rather try to find out what individual would like to do and then over a period track effectiveness of different methods, to help them see different methods are either helping or hurting them.
Di-Com learns from the user, and provides interactions suitable for the individual’s needs. For example, whether a silent walk or listening to music soothes your mind is deeply personal, and requires personalized handling. Hence our application does not try to suggest specific solutions, but rather tries to find out what the individual would like to do, then over a period of time, track the effectiveness of how those solutions worked out.
Our solution is very accessible by overcoming the digital divide by getting into voice conversations instead of typing. Our initial solution is available as a Google assistant app. We plan to enhance it to be available in multiple languages and platforms (Amazon Alexa, Google Home, Microsoft Cortana). It will be very easy to access like “Tom can we talk” o “Alexa connect me to tom”. We plan to make it available to an individual (free) or it can be used by a community-based organization to improve mental health for their caregivers and residents. In the latter case, they will deploy an instance and will get usage and other critical statistics to better manage care for their subjects.
For the family caregivers:
Digital companion will be a great way for the family caregivers to defuse their tensions through conversation with the app. It will track as their sentiments change over time, it will track how different people and tools are positively or negatively influencing their day. It will help them focus on areas that are positively reinforcing for them. Above all being able to continuously monitor mood over time will encourage help them seek professional help as soon as possible.
Di-Com currently does not store any of their conversations, it only stores data about the conversations and various names used in the conversations. This approach was designed for the generic user, in order to ensure the privacy of the information shared. However, in working with family caregivers if a user need is identified, for storing and using the conversation data to either help with mental health analysis or therapy, we will be able to add this module in a short period.
In designing and developing Di-Com, I was able to solicit and receive guidance from my mentors Jackie Pinkowitz, Chair of the Board of Directors of Dementia Action Alliance, and Dr. Mary L. Radnofsky, a former college professor still living an active life with dementia, as an advocate for human rights for people with dementia. They both come with years of experience in the dementia care and related challenges. Together we form a formidable alliance to create innovative solutions for the caregivers and people with dementia.