Past brought to life for dementia sufferers

Tuesday 14 June 2005

Classic movies such as ‘Casablanca’ could bring back lost memories for dementia sufferers thanks to an innovative memory aid.

Based on an interactive multimedia computer system and a clearer understanding of how dementia sufferers respond to social situations, the aid aims to stimulate more enjoyable, rewarding conversation between sufferers and those who care for them.

With funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), a team of researchers led by Dr Arlene Astell of the University of St Andrews School of Psychology has developed CIRCA (Computer Interactive Reminiscence and Conversation Aid). CIRCA comprises a simple touch-screen with easy-to- follow instructions that require no IT competence.

When switched on, it displays a choice of three random categories (entertainment, local life etc). Selecting a category, the user is given a choice of ‘music’, ‘photo’ or ‘video’. These in turn call up images, video or sound clips (e.g. of well-known movie stars such as Humphrey Bogart) from a database, acting as a memory trigger and conversation prompt. A ‘stop and talk’ button allows the system to be frozen at any point.

The research team has built a range of innovative features into the way the system is used. Because sufferer and carer sit side by side in front of the screen, encouraging the sense of a shared experience, and because the system relies on a touch screen, rather than a mouse or keyboard, the carer is not seen as being ‘in control’. Furthermore, as the sufferer can be prompted to operate the system themselves, they feel less dependent on their carer. The result is a more positive, relaxed social experience than can be achieved using other memory-prompting reminiscence packages currently available.

During development, CIRCA was tested on 40 dementia sufferers in daycare, nursing home and family situations. The results were very encouraging, with many carers reporting that sufferers seemed like their ‘old self’ (see case studies below). CIRCA exploits the fact that, while dementia sufferers find it hard to recall recent events, longer-term memory is less affected by their condition.

CIRCA could become available on the market in two to three years. The research team is now looking at whether it could also be used for people with learning disabilities or head injuries. In addition, they have secured EPSRC funding to develop an interactive multimedia activity system that dementia sufferers can use on their own.

Dr Arlene Astell said, “Dementia sufferers’ declining ability to hold normal conversations causes a lot of stress and frustration. Helping them access their memories will make living with dementia more bearable and less distressing for sufferers and their carers”.



CIRCA case studies:

1. Jane was a 56 year old with early onset dementia, cared for at home by her husband Richard. Jane needed a great deal of help with all aspects of daily life and her dementia was so advanced that she regularly used only single words to communicate.

Richard and Jane were invited to use CIRCA in their home and were given brief instructions on how to operate the system. Richard encouraged his wife to comment on the contents of the system and Jane looked at the screen and touched it when prompted by Richard. The most striking episode occurred when Jane watched a video clip of Elvis Presley. Jane smiled, took Richard’s hand and proceeded to swing their hands in time to the music. Jane continued to smile and laugh during the music and at one point moved in close and rubbed noses with her husband. Richard was visibly touched by this – he later commented that he thought it was Jane’s attempt to tell him that ‘she remembered’.

Richard felt using CIRCA was a worthwhile experience for both himself and his wife, allowing them to have an enjoyable shared experience. He commented: “We can do it together¿it gives a common ground¿we can see and hear the same things.¿ Richard also felt CIRCA allowed him to communicate more effectively with his wife.

2. John was an 88 year old with advanced dementia who lived in a small nursing home unit specialising in the care of older people with cognitive impairment. John was very fragile physically but retained a sharp wit and a very strong personality. As a result, staff often found it challenging to include John in planned activities.

John was invited to use CIRCA with Kate, a professional caregiver at the unit. From the outset, John was clearly very interested in the system and touched the screen when encouraged by Kate. He chose what he wanted to look at throughout the session and often laughed and joked with Kate. John made several comments in response to and about the contents of the system, at times saying ‘good thing, this’, ‘this covers everything’, ‘it’s good to remember things’ and ‘that’s entertainment!’

After the session, Kate commented that she had “never enjoyed conducting reminiscence so much with a resident¿. She felt she and John had “achieved something¿ together and was delighted to see him choose things for himself. She felt that she and John had both really enjoyed themselves.

* * * * * *

The three-year project, ‘A Multimedia Reminiscence Experience and Conversation Support for Elderly People with Memory Loss’, received EPSRC funding of £404,000. Alzheimer Scotland and Dundee City Council were partners in this initiative, which was supported under the EPSRC-funded EQUAL programme; EQUAL aims to encourage technological developments that improve quality of life for older adults. For more information on EQUAL, visit the web at

The three-year follow-up project, “Developing an Interactive Multimedia Activity System for Elderly People with Dementia¿, will run until 2007 and is receiving EPSRC funding of £457,000.

The research team is drawn from:

– the School of Psychology at the University of St Andrews – Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art, Dundee – the Department of Applied Computing at the University of Dundee.

Researchers have found that it is better to avoid customising CIRCA to include items of close personal relevance to individual sufferers, who tended to feel distressed if they are unable to remember the names of people they recognised as close friends or family members.

In the UK, 5% of people over the age of 65 are affected by dementia, the most common form being Alzheimer’s Disease.

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) is the UK’s main agency for funding research in engineering and the physical sciences. The EPSRC invests more than £500 million a year in research and postgraduate training, to help the nation handle the next generation of technological change. The areas covered range from information technology to structural engineering, and mathematics to materials science. This research forms the basis for future economic development in the UK and improvements for everyone’s health, lifestyle and culture. EPSRC also actively promotes public awareness of science and engineering. EPSRC works alongside other Research Councils with responsibility for other areas of research. The Research Councils work collectively on issues of common concern via Research Councils UK. Website address for more information on EPSRC:

For more information, contact:

Dr Arlene Astell, School of Psychology, University of St Andrews, Tel: 01334 462056, E- mail: [email protected]

Three images are available from the EPSRC Press Office: contact Lisa Green, e-mail: [email protected], tel: 01793 442806

Suggested captions for images:

Ladies sweeping.jpg: ‘The CIRCA system provides old photographs, video footage and music to help dementia sufferers remember the past and engage in conversation with their carers’.

Record Player.jpg and Radio.jpg: ‘While the current system draws on images and sounds from the 1930’s to the 1960’s the content could be tailored to reflect the sort of material likely to appeal to any age group’.

A more detailed feature on this research is available in the next edition of EPSRC’s publication ‘Newsline’ If you’d like a copy of this issue please contact Jonathan Wakefield, tel: 01793 444075, e-mail: [email protected]

Category Research

Related topics

Share this story