Can Technology Ease The Burden Of Caring For People With Dementia? : Shots - Health News Things like activity trackers and sensors might make it easier to keep people with dementia safe and help caregivers. Researchers are going to test that idea in the real world.
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Can Technology Ease The Burden Of Caring For People With Dementia?

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Can Technology Ease The Burden Of Caring For People With Dementia?

Can Technology Ease The Burden Of Caring For People With Dementia?

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Now, let's turn to what's being called the silver tsunami. It's the nearly 80 million baby boomers in the U.S. who are getting older and in need of more medical care. Seven million of them will have Alzheimer's disease a decade from now, according to one estimate. And that means many other people will have to take on the role of caregiver. From member station KQED in San Francisco, Amy Standen reports on how technology might ease that burden and protect patients.

AMY STANDEN, BYLINE: A doctor I interviewed for this story told me something that stuck with me. He said for every person with dementia he treats, he finds himself caring for two patients. That's how hard it can be to be a caregiver for someone with dementia.

MARIA MARTINEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

STANDEN: Maria Martinez is helping her mom, Aurora, who is 78 and has Alzheimer's out of Maria's red Mini Cooper.

M. MARTINEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

AURORA MARTINEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

STANDEN: Aurora lives with Maria's father in a small apartment in San Rafael. Maria, their only child, comes almost every day.

M. MARTINEZ: I do the bathing, the shopping, medical care. I do the laundry just to help dad.

STANDEN: In the beginning, Aurora would sometimes wander at night. Her husband began sleeping on the floor in front of the front door to catch her.

ARTURO MARTINEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

STANDEN: "I was afraid she'd go out into the street while I was asleep," he says. So, Maria came up with a solution.

M. MARTINEZ: You hear these little wind chimes so we can hear when she opens the door and so forth.

STANDEN: Maria says right now, things are manageable. She and her dad can keep her mom living at home safely. But other families are emotionally and financially drained by this process. The cost for caring for Alzheimer's patients alone is expected to triple over the next 10 years to more than a trillion dollars a year. And that huge number doesn't include the burden on people like Maria and her dad.

BRUCE MILLER: Caregivers, approximately 50 percent, develop a major depressive illness.

STANDEN: This is Dr. Bruce Miller, who sees these problems daily at the University of California San Francisco Memory and Aging Center.

MILLER: Ten percent say that in the time that they give care that they develop a serious medical problem because of the caregiving. That's a cost as well.

STANDEN: This year, UCSF along with the University of Nebraska is beginning a $10 million study funded by the federal government to try and improve this situation and to find out whether technology can help.


KATRIN SCHENK: You know, like the safety issues, like leaving the stove on.

STANDEN: A couple of weeks ago, in a sunny conference room at UCSF, techies and doctors sat around a table brainstorming. Almost all of them have family members with dementia. On the tech side, Katrin Schenk, who teaches physics at Randolph College in Virginia.


SCHENK: You could easily put in like a temperature sensor and you know, well, they went in there and turned on that burner.

STANDEN: Oh, my gosh.

SCHENK: It's been on for two hours. Someone needs to do something.

STANDEN: Or for the roughly one-third of dementia patients that have diabetes, is there a way for doctors and family members to check those levels remotely?


SCHENK: Yup, there are Bluetooth blood sugar meters. Very useful.

KATE POSSIN: I think we should enroll every patient with diabetes in our program into this.

STANDEN: If this all sounds intrusive, says Kate Possin, a psychologist at UCSF, consider the alternative - anxious adult children and parents who end up in nursing homes sooner than they want to.

POSSIN: This may be a compromise for them in their minds. If I use this system, then my son who lives three hours away feels comfortable and safe with me living at home alone a little bit longer.

STANDEN: Meanwhile, a handful of technology startups are making the same case.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Meet Mary. She's 88 years young and fiercely independent.

STANDEN: This is an ad for a San Francisco-based company called Lively.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Here's how Lively works. Lively centers are placed on objects in Mary's home, like her refrigerator, pillbox and keychain.

STANDEN: These kinds of products, which let doctors and caregivers check up on their patients remotely, make common sense, says Katrin Schenk. They should work, but do they in the long run? Back in that sunny UCSF conference room, Schenk and the others agree. That data just isn't there yet.


SCHENK: I know for sure no one's gotten the data and proven that it works and proven that it improves people's health, improves caregiver burden. Reduces hospitalizations. Delays the entrance into a nursing home. Those companies don't have that data.

STANDEN: UCSF and the University of Nebraska also want to see whether sensors and other technologies could be helpful for people in later stages of dementia, like Aurora Martinez, or whether they'll just create more hassle. They're hoping to enroll 2,100 patients in the study and have some answers early next year. For NPR News, I'm Amy Standen in San Francisco.

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