Image of Talk with Ted simulation

Transforming care for people living with dementia

A tool to help aged care staff understand the importance of communication for people living with dementia.

Communication difficulties are a common symptom of dementia. Many people living with the condition struggle to articulate their needs, which ultimately impacts the quality of their relationships, health and well-being.

So being able to maintain a conversation with a person living with dementia can positively impact their cognitive impairment and improve their emotional well-being. 

The recent report from the Australian Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety highlights a major gap in the training provided to carers working with people living with dementia.  

To address this, Dementia Australia has developed a world-first training avatar tool named Talk with Ted, in collaboration with Deakin University’s Applied Artificial Intelligence Institute (A2I2) and the Australian Research Council Industrial Transformation Research Hub for Digital Enhanced Living (DELH). 

Talk with Ted provides carers of people living with dementia with an innovative educational experience to help them understand the behaviours associated with dementia and how to improve their communication skills.  

Improving interpersonal skills on a practical level 

As of 2018, an estimated 3.9 million Australians (16% of the total population) were aged 65 or over. This is projected to increase to 21–23% by 2066. As life expectancy increases, the challenges of aged care are becoming more immediate and pronounced.

Australia’s aged care industry is struggling to provide well-regulated, cost-effective and suitable aged care facilities to support its growing ageing population. The shortage of human resources within the aged care sector significantly limits our ability to provide sufficient care to our elderly citizens.  

Carers have a heavy workload and the training provided to them is found wanting, especially when it comes to working with people living with dementia. 

What carers need is more than just theoretical guidelines, classroom-based learning or online training programs, as this information can be easily forgotten within days. They require practical experience to improve their interpersonal and communication skills. 

Given the serious nature of dementia, carers cannot practice their communication skills directly with people living with dementia. Therefore, a need exists for carers to be provided with a safe and realistic virtual environment where they are able to practice their skills. 

Introducing, Ted 

Talk with Ted represents a world-first initiative for this type of technology. It has been designed by Dementia Australia and A2I2 to provide carers of people living with dementia the means to understand the benefits of positive communication and empathy.

The tool is accessible on a computer and provides an online simulation of a typical communication experience between a care worker and someone living with dementia. 

At the core of this immersive experience is the ability to have a full conversation with Ted. The avatar exhibits the behaviour and emotions that are associated with dementia and is capable of responding to interactions that carers can have with Ted.

Trainees must learn to adapt their communication in a way that is empathetic and respectful to the needs of with a person living with dementia. 

Early trial data suggests a positive outlook

In late 2019, Dr Anju Curumsing of A2I2 led an eight-week study where Talk with Ted was trialled with twenty-three professional carers. At the time, all of them were caring for people living with dementia.

The trial participants were grouped into two cohorts: the avatar cohort and the online communication cohort

(controlled group). Only the participants in the avatar cohort had access to the digital avatar during the first week. 

The key objective of the trial was to assess whether the use of such technology can support the carers in understanding the impact that a conversation can have on a person living with dementia, and whether this tool can help carers reflect on their current care practice.

“Results from the trial were overwhelmingly positive,” Dr. Curumsing said. “Carers reported that they developed a better understanding of the behaviours associated with dementia and understood how poor communication can trigger behaviour changes.”

“[Ted] definitely [taught] us how to interact a lot better [and] how to deal with [people living with dementia] … it will help,” an anonymous trial participant said. 

Carers also said that their interaction with Ted motivated them to adopt a person-centred approach when communicating with people living with dementia. 

“I’ve learned from my interaction with Ted. I changed my approach and adapted it … [The] client was so happy,” another anonymous trial participant said. 

Findings also showed that most of the carers preferred the digital avatar over simulated patient sessions and traditional methods such as online training courses.

Dr Anju Curumsing is a Research Fellow at Deakin’s Applied Artificial Intelligence Institute.

Curious? Discover more about Talk with Ted over at Dementia Australia.

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