Everyday Sounds of Dementia: Designing Warm Technology for and with People with Dementia

by Maarten Houben


Dementia has become a societal challenge as populations are aging, and a cure is still not on the horizon. Therefore, researchers and designers in HCI are increasingly investigating how technology can contribute to the quality of life of people with dementia. Recently, we have seen a major shift in dementia research in HCI from a biomedical view that aims to remediate cognitive or physical disabilities towards a person-centered approach that foregrounds the everyday experiences of living with dementia and how technology can enrich these experiences.

The recently launched Expertise Centre Dementia & Technology at the TU Eindhoven builds on this socially inclusive perspective through the design and evaluation of Warm Technology. This novel approach to technology design is inclusive, person-centered, and focused on the abilities and aspirations of people living with dementia and their caretakers, rather than merely compensating for the loss of motor function or cognitive ability. Warm technology contributes to the wellbeing of every person through reinforcing dignity, supporting agency, and providing feelings of comfort and safety.

Everyday Sounds of Dementia
An example of Warm Technology is the Everyday Sounds of Dementia project. Motivated by the large body of evidence on the benefits of music, this project explored and identified the effects of ambient or everyday sounds for people with dementia. In this project, we combined expertise from care practice with design-research approaches to establish a knowledge framework of the added value of sound for people with dementia and develop and evaluate audio-based technology with immediate, meaningful impact in care practice. We closely involved people with dementia and their care networks, such as caregivers and family members, in designing concrete applications that are evaluated in real-life situations.

We adopted an inclusive research approach by providing interactive audio-based technology that stimulates agency, playfulness, and social engagement. Participatory workshops with the Dementia Soundboard (see figure 1) provided insight into how everyday sounds evoke memories, emotional experiences, and a sense of social belonging during activities in a day-care center. The participants and care staff highly valued the informal and inclusive atmosphere of the workshops and recognized the usefulness of everyday sounds in supporting social activities.

figure 1: Dementia Soundboard

Our field study on the deployment of VITA: an interactive sound cushion (see figure 2) in two care facilities provided insight into how everyday sounds facilitated by VITA stimulate meaningful conversations, playfulness, curiosity, and verbal and nonverbal contact with people in advanced stages of dementia. The use of sound is not a universal solution to improve problem behavior and symptoms but a valuable tool to provide a meaningful and person-oriented experience during daily care by facilitating social contact and warm moments that contribute to the emotional wellbeing of residents with dementia.

figure 2: Vita sound cushion

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted pre-existing systemic challenges in dementia care and how social isolation heavily impacts the wellbeing of people with dementia. While remote and digital communication was a valuable complement during the pandemic, they should never replace face-to-face interactions and close contact. Therefore, researchers and designers in HCI can reinforce these perspectives through person-centered and inclusive technologies that facilitate emotional, meaningful, and warm social experiences.

Maarten Houben is a PhD Candidate at the Eindhoven University of Technology at the Department of Industrial Design (promotor: Prof. dr. B. Eggen) and affiliated with TRANZO Scientific Center for Care and Wellbeing, Tilburg University. His PhD research focuses on investigating the beneficial effects of everyday sounds and soundscapes in technologies for dementia.

For more info, visit https://maartenhouben.be or https://ecdt.nl/en/home-en/