Intelligence Rules: Technology & Dementia

Hello and warm wishes for a new year filled with joyful moments and success in your endeavors. I am Richard Fenker, psychologist, author and designer of complex systems based on AI and mathematics. I know just enough about Alzheimer’s/dementia to be dangerous and have just finished my second book in this area, “Don’t Rain On My Parade: Living Live To Its Fullest With Alzheimer’s.” The book is my attempt to write a positive, hopeful book about dementia — in part to counter the doom and gloom that is so prevalent today in the Alzheimer’s/dementia community. I’ve seen this negativity in my personal experience with Alzheimer’s (with my aunt), at the past two international Alzheimer’s Association conferences (where any form of positive news was difficult to find) and in our general approach to the disease which speaks more to our failures and fears with concepts such as “The Longest Day.” While I applaud the work of the association in fund raising and support for the Alzheimer’s community I also recognize that it is not the voice of people living with dementia.
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There is no doubt that some of this negativity is real and justified based on the challenges presented by Alzheimer’s; yet, no person with this disease wants to hear the message at the beginning of a long journey that not only is there no cure, there is also no hope or opportunity to live a full and joyful life from this point on. Imagine delivering that same message to people with cancer, heart disease, diabetes and dozens of other disorders! Every person with any form of dementia wants the same kinds of love, hope, respect and eventually a cure that individuals with other diseases receive routinely.
This blog and my related work with the development of a “companion mind” for people with Alzheimer’s/dementia (please see MindPartner.org for more information) represent a start at bringing the best that technology has to offer today into this domain, not to help the physicians, researchers and others such as caregivers, professionals or family, who dominate this space (although all of these groups will certainly benefit) but to add joy, independence and fullness to the lives of the people living with these diseases. A common theme in many of my articles is shocking only because of our culture’s profound disinterest in the lives of those living with dementia: most of the technology needed to improve the quality of life of people living with dementia already exists today in a developed, accessible form! For many reasons, the Alzheimer’s community has simply declined to adapt or use it.
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I attended two of the sessions on technology and Alzheimer’s at the latest international conference this past summer in Washington, DC. One session focused on the use of the Internet to collect survey data (a process widely used in business and other research settings 15 years ago); the second, discussed the use of a bracelet to track the locations of individuals and their behaviors in a residential setting. Definitely a good idea but in my companies we have been tracking the locations of people and businesses using GIS since 1997 — and, by the way, has anyone ever heard of the Apple Watch or the mobile phone? Technology is a good ally here and any steps toward using technology intelligently to support people with dementia is important, including these baby steps; but, come on, the world has so much more to offer today that can help.
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This monthly blog will discuss the limited current use of technology to support people with dementia, potential applications of technology using devices or systems already developed for other domains, futuristic applications including my MindPartner™ program and other AI-oriented applications and finally the topic of designing homes and residential facilities that serve people with dementia. While my focus is on improving their quality of life I think that in order to make this happen we also need to do everything we can to support the caregivers and caregiving environments.
I welcome your feedback on my articles. As I mentioned in the beginning, I know just enough about dementia to be dangerous and my perspective is much more that of an inventor and technologist than a professional in this area. Ultimately, all of the ideas suggested in my blogs will need to be tested and evaluated to understand their value — and the Alzheimer’s Association with its focus on research offers the network of institutions and people to do this testing. In the meantime, the technical world today is driven by ideas, creativity and need. Development of Facebook, mobile communication devices, Twitter, GoToMeeting and hundreds of other highly successful and useful products was based, not on classic research paradigms, but on the need for the services these inventions provided. Let’s apply the same energy and creativity to the problem of dementia. My goal is to make this blog one of the sparks that makes this new direction possible.

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