New Strategic Partnership To Support Informal Caregivers Through Innovative Telepresence Robot Project

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As our population ages, there is an increasing number of people living with chronic health conditions such as dementia. While our healthcare system supports the medical needs of these individuals, they often require additional support from informal caregivers — their family, friends, and neighbours.

These caregivers may find themselves facing the challenges of looking after their loved one while balancing their career, home, and family life. A report from the Canadian Institute for Health Information released prior to COVID-19 indicates that 45% of family caregivers providing care for older adults with dementia experience distress related to their role, compared to just 26% of caregivers providing care for older adults without dementia. Many community support programs have been cancelled or suspended due to the pandemic, meaning caregivers are now facing less support while coping with isolation.

Through the generosity of our supporters and a new strategic partnership with Research Manitoba, The Vic Foundation has invested $180,000 in a new telepresence robot project from researchers at the University of Manitoba, designed to minimize the burden on these caregivers and support individuals living with dementia.

A telepresence robot is a computer, tablet, or smartphone-controlled robot which may be equipped with a camera, screen, speakers, and microphones. This technology enables the operator and the person interacting with the robot to see and hear each other without being in the same location.

“We want to see if our hypothesis holds true that a telepresence robot can strengthen the relationship and improve the lives of both the caregiver and the person living with dementia, as well as give a sense of independence and safety,” said Dr. Reg Urbanowski, Dean & Associate Professor, College of Rehabilitation Sciences, Rady Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Manitoba. “If you have a person that can stay at home and be happy, you are keeping them safe and connected to their family.”

The Vic Foundation’s investment in the telepresence robot project builds on our own proud history of empowering Manitobans to live safely and independently at home through our Victoria Lifeline community service.

“We are honoured to partner with Research Manitoba and collaborate with Dr. Urbanowski, Dr. Amine Choukou and their research team to find transformative ways to assist these caregivers and enhance their efforts to sustain independence and quality of life for those living with dementia,” said Charlene Rocke, Executive Director, Victoria General Hospital Foundation.

Dr. Urbanowski anticipates these robots will provide caregivers with additional support.

“It will give them more independence,” said Dr. Urbanowski. “It allows them to keep in touch while they are not home and allows them to go shopping, volunteer, or do whatever else they need to do.”

Dr. Urbanowski feels the benefits of this technology far outweigh that of phones and tablets.

“With the telepresence robot and its facial recognition and voice automation, you don’t need to worry about turning on a phone,” said Dr. Urbanowski. “It has the capacity to follow you around and you can form a relationship with the robot. You are sitting on the couch and it comes to you.”

Participants are currently being recruited from the Alzheimer’s Society of Manitoba as well as the Manitoba Association of Senior Centres, with preliminary data expected this spring. The project will feature three different models with five units of each, for a total of 15 telepresence robots.

Dr. Urbanowski feels there is a large potential for use of this technology to become widespread throughout Canada.

“It helps keep families together,” said Dr. Urbanowski. “Canada is a large country and it is not uncommon for parents and their children to live apart. Right now it is a bit of a novelty, but it can become part of our regular life.”

According to the Alzheimer’s Society of Manitoba, there are over 23,000 Manitobans living with Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia.

The Vic Foundation’s investment in the telepresence robot project is part of a strategic partnership with Research Manitoba to support innovation and advance research in Manitoba. Thanks to the generosity of our supporters, The Vic Foundation has invested an additional $100,000 in COVID-19 clinical trials, as well as a $55,000 investment in a health research competition through this strategic partnership.