Using technology to create ‘a better visit’ for people living with dementia

By Professor Sonja Pedell

While much media reporting portrays technology as a cause of social withdrawal, a research project by Dementia Australia, Lifeview Residential Care and Swinburne University’s Future Self and Design Living Lab is enhancing communication between people with dementia and their visitors using an iPad. The project, ‘A better visit’, takes a user centred approach to co-create easy to use interactive apps to encourage conversation and meaningful social interaction between older adults living with moderate to advanced dementia in a residential care setting and their visitors.

The first prototype evaluation showed more engagement of the older adults resulting in interacting with the touch screen and telling of life stories ... prompted by graphical images and music

A wide range of two-player game apps, based around typical Australian activities and scenes familiar to older residents, replace the more passive ‘content consumption’ experienced while watching TV for example, by stimulating memories, stories and typical activities creating a shared experience between the resident and their visitors. They include a Picture Guessing game, a dance hall version of tic-tac-toe; skill games including a gyroscopic tilt Marble Maze; interest-based ones such as Bowling and Fishing; and art and music activities including Traces where participants trace pulsing colour lines to music, Cleaning Windows which reveals high definition photos and Magic Colouring of black and white animating images.

One visitor commented after playing the games with her father: "I saw dad smile today – this is all I need when I come for a visit."

The project, which is in development and testing stages, consists of three phases; (i) understanding the needs of both parties during a visit with existing apps and the role of technology, (ii) systematic co-development and investigation of interactive mechanisms and (iii) iterative evaluation of prototypical applications. It is already showing that the technology is providing cues to instigate rich storytelling and other conversations between the older adult and their visitors. The first prototype evaluation showed more engagement of the older adults resulting in interacting with the touch screen and telling of life stories (of up to 10 minutes) prompted by graphical images and music. The apps were found to facilitate fun and shared experiences.

 A resident interacting with the app revealing a picture vis turning tiles.

A resident interacting with the app revealing a picture vis turning tiles.

 Colouring in of a familiar Australian parrot

Colouring in of a familiar Australian parrot

One visitor commented after playing the games with her father: “I saw dad smile today – this is all I need when I come for a visit."

Surprisingly, it was much harder to engage visitors who seemed to very much focus on and prompt the older adult instead of always engaging in a two-way conversation. A lot of encouragement was needed from developers’ side to be flexible and explorative. There is no right or wrong way or the need to finalise certain games or sections. It is more important to come up with ways that engage both players equally as the main purpose is to have fun together. Hence the insistence of some visitors on playing according to rules was rather discouraged. However, pointing out cheating or when visitors felt left out on their turn was often resulting in little banters ending in laughter and sometimes physical contact between visitor and resident, reinforcing their often decades-long relationship.

 Screenshot: Creating patterns on the screen in free-hand style

Screenshot: Creating patterns on the screen in free-hand style

The research has identified an extended use for the technology. While the researchers very much enjoyed the stories, the researchers were all already known to the visitors. These apps might provide opportunities for volunteers and other people who are unknown to the older adults to get to know and engage with them, creating wider social interaction for those experiencing what is frequently an isolating condition.

The project team comprises: Tanya Petrovich, Manager, Business Development, Dementia Australia; Ann Lafferty, Manager Special Projects, Lifeview Residential Care;  and Sonja Pedell (project lead and co-creation), Stu Favilla (musician and sound designer), Jeanie Beh (research assistant), Andrew Murphy (developer and visual designer), Carl Looper (developer) and Bill Trikojus (developer) from Swinburne University’s Future Self and Design Living Lab.


Professor Sonja Pedell is Director of Swinburne University’s Future Self and Design Living Lab. The FSD Living Lab has core development capabilities in the area of innovative socio-technical systems and design solutions for health and wellbeing with a focus on the ageing population. Technology, products and services can make a big difference to older adults, but it rarely address their needs. The FSD Living Lab develops solutions that are likely to be adopted as they are co-created at every development step, meet the social-emotional goals and addresses their evolving needs. Prior to taking up these roles at Swinburne, Dr Pedell completed a Masters of Psychology from the Technical University of Berlin and was employed as an Interaction Designer, Usability Consultant and Product Manager in industry for several years.