Professor Jesse HoeyFriendly reminders from an electronic companion may be able to help seniors living with dementia to live a better, more fulfilling life.

“Alzheimer’s is a disease that causes problems with memory, thinking and behaviour,” says Jesse Hoey, a professor of computer science at the University of Waterloo. The ability to do even simple tasks, like washing hands, becomes challenging for persons with Alzheimer’s. “They can’t remember how to do it, or they forget the steps they’ve already taken.

“Normally, persons suffering from Alzheimer’s would be helped by a human companion, but that places a burden on the caregiver, and reduces the person’s independence.”

But a special camera that can observe what a person is doing, and give prompts when needed, could help. Prototypes have been developed, but Hoey admits there’s work to be done. Despite our electronic advances, there is still no computer capable of meaningful dialogue.

“I’m pursuing a long-term dream of developing artificial intelligence, and geriatrics is my current focus,” he says.

Then, there is the danger of that those suffering from Alzheimer’s disease will take a walk and lose their way, even if they intended only to stroll around the block. “My goal is to build something of an intelligent version of a geo-fence, something that would give a person some kind of feedback if they do get disoriented, that would get them headed in the right direction.”

The device should also take into account the weather and the time of day.

“The nuts and bolts are there. It’s just a matter of developing it into a working prototype,” Hoey says.  “But there’s not a one-size-fits-all solution.”

Hoey is originally from Montreal, and completed his degrees at the University of British Columbia, before working with others at the University of Toronto who were also trying to apply computer technology to care for the elderly. He was an assistant professor for four years at the University of Dundee in Scotland, before returning to Canada to take a post in the University of Waterloo’s David R. Cheriton School of Computer Science.

“The application of artificial intelligence to this particular area drives the research, but it presents all these problems that need to be solved,” says Hoey. “But it’s a gratifying area to work in, knowing that my insights might make life better for someone.”