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Health News

Meet Viv: an AI character fostering companionship for people with dementia

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Chatting with Viv.

Meet Viv: an AI character fostering companionship for people with dementia

 

UNSW Sydney

With a view to improving the lives of people living with dementia, UNSW researchers have come up with a world-first: an AI driven companion. 

Viv is candid about the “rollercoaster” of living with dementia. She speaks gently. “It can be confusing and disorienting and at times downright scary, but there are also beautiful moments of connection and joy amidst the challenges,” she says.

“Those moments of connection … They are truly precious. You see even though my memory may fail me at times, the heart remembers.”

In 2022, the AIHW estimated that there were 401,300 Australians living with dementia. It is a growing issue in health and aged care in Australia that has significant impact on quality of life for people living with dementia and for their family and friends.

Viv’s experience reflects that of many people living with dementia with one significant difference. Viv is an artificially intelligent (AI) character. She is part of a suite of digital characters being developed by the fEEL ARC Laureate Lab at UNSW Sydney to foster companionship for people living with dementia.

Viv and Friends was co-created with women living with dementia – using their words, insights and experiences – to empathically understand the experience of dementia diagnosis and living with hallucinations,” says Dr Gail Kenning, a lead researcher from fEEL. Dr Kenning’s research examines how creativity can support health and wellbeing, with a particular focus on ageing and dementia.

“Like the women who co-created her, Viv experiences various dementia-related symptoms. She is insightful and reflective, finding her way in the world, living her life and coming to terms with neurological change.

“The companion characters can talk peer to peer about dementia or because they’re AI-driven, they can be programmed to share a person’s interests. So, Viv could talk to them about gardening, for example,” she says. “They can also help calm people if they are overstimulated or emotionally dysregulated or motivate them if they are feeling apathetic.”

“The companion characters can talk peer to peer about dementia,” says Dr Kenning. “They can also help calm people if they are overstimulated or emotionally dysregulated.”

The origins of Viv

Co-designing arts-based interventions with and for people with lived experience is central to the fEEL Lab’s ethos. Led by ARC Laureate Scientia Professor Jill Bennett, it brings together specialists in immersive media, participatory design, trauma studies and psychology to explore the embodied subjective experiences of trauma and ageing.

Viv first came to life as a digital character based on four women with similar symptoms of vascular dementia.

“Originally, she was an audio-visual artwork who helped people understand dementia by drawing them into her story. And then she became a teaching tool for professionals working with people with dementia. And, now using AI character engine technology, like that developed for game design, Viv can interact with people in real-time,” says Prof. Bennett.

The Viv and Friends series, co-designed by fEEL research fellow Volker Kuchelmeister, builds on the kinds of connections we forge with characters on television series, Dr Kenning says. “Research has shown that people can develop socio-emotional bonds with characters that can affect their moods and behaviours in much the same way as direct, interpersonal contact can,” she says.

However, the fast pace and complex storylines of television can prove an obstacle for people living with dementia, she says. “Viv and Friends speak slowly, they are patient and unfazed by repetitious conversations, allowing people living with dementia to easily engage.”

While person-to-person contact is ideal, many people living in aged care have limited opportunities for social connection, she says. The companion characters are designed to enable meaningful communication and connection and help to combat feelings of isolation and loneliness through the simple pleasure of sharing a conversation or having a laugh.

Chatting with Viv.

Chatting with Viv.

A profound impact

“The characters don’t just provide companionship, they can also help with co-regulating emotion, as would happen with a human companion,” says Prof. Bennett. “This is very helpful when people living with dementia experience confusion or hallucinations.

One potential positive effect we envisage is in terms of offering a calming and soothing response when people are anxious or distressed. Without a calming or reassuring companion people may simply be offered sedating medication. This is a big window to provide the kind of emotional support that can help people manage anxiety through a relationship with an AI companion.”

And while some people express concern that the characters are being created to replace human relationships, that could never be the case, says Prof. Bennett. “They could never replace relationships people have with their children, or spouses. But they could do things your son or daughter isn’t present to do or doesn’t have the patience to do. And you could ask them questions or say things to them you would never say to your kids, a function many might appreciate.”

The future

Dr Kenning is currently taking Viv into a number of aged-care centres – both on a life-sized portrait screen and on iPads – to continue to explore ways Viv can be part of providing psycho-social support for those living with dementia.

“As screens are already available in both common spaces and private rooms in aged-care facilities, Viv will be well positioned to interact with the people living there,” says Dr Kenning.

“We will continue to develop Viv in the context of the space, including looking at ways that she can ground people in the moment within the rhythms of life in aged care, letting people know when it’s time for tea, or a meal, and the like,” says Dr Kenning.

Previously the focus on AI in aged care has been personalisation, but more recent research suggests that what’s important is a sense of connection.

“Viv’s ability to respond or join in a conversation is a powerful psycho-social support, and we are now starting the process of creating a male character, and others to expand the potential of Viv and Friends to improve the lives of those living with dementia,” says Dr Kenning.

The fEEL team are also creating companion characters to support people living with other diagnoses, including Huntington’s Disease.

 

For more seniors news, click here.

Health News

Measles Alert Issued for Northern NSW Residents

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Measles Alert Issued for Northern NSW Residents

Measles Alert Issued for Northern NSW Residents

 

NSW Health has issued a measles alert for residents in northern NSW following confirmation of one measles case. The individual recently returned from Asia, where measles outbreaks have been ongoing, particularly in countries such as Pakistan and India. Those who may have been exposed to the virus are urged to monitor for symptoms.

Locations where exposure may have occurred include:

  • The Singh Company school bus route in the Murwillumbah area on Monday, February 5th, for both morning and afternoon trips.
  • Murwillumbah Hospital’s Emergency Department on Friday, February 9th, between 1:15 pm and 4:00 pm.
  • Murwillumbah Hospital’s Emergency Department on Saturday, February 10th, between 12:15 pm and 8:00 pm.

Dr. Valerie Delpech, North Coast Regional Director of Population and Public Health, reassured the public that while these locations do not pose an ongoing risk, individuals who visited them should remain vigilant for symptoms.

NSW Health has issued a measles alert for residents in northern NSW following confirmation of one measles case in Murwillumbah.

NSW Health has issued a measles alert for residents in northern NSW following confirmation of one measles case in Murwillumbah.

Measles symptoms typically include fever, runny nose, sore eyes, and a cough, followed by a red, blotchy rash spreading from the head to the body. The disease spreads through the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes and symptoms can appear between 7 and 18 days after exposure.

Dr. Delpech emphasised the importance of seeking medical advice promptly if symptoms develop, urging individuals to call ahead to their GP or emergency department to avoid spreading the virus to others.

She stressed the significance of vaccination, noting that two doses of the measles vaccine are required for full protection, particularly for those born after 1966. The measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine is available free of charge in NSW for individuals born during or after 1966 who haven’t received two doses.

Parents of children aged 6 to 12 months who plan to travel to high-risk measles areas are advised to consult their GP about the possibility of vaccinating their child before traveling. Additional doses of the vaccine are considered safe and are recommended if vaccination status is uncertain, especially before traveling.

MMR vaccine is accessible through GPs for all ages and pharmacies for individuals over 5 years old. Anyone experiencing measles symptoms or seeking further information is encouraged to contact their GP or Healthdirect on 1800 022 222. For comprehensive information on measles, visit the NSW Health website.

 

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Enhanced Support for Early Childhood Health and Development Checks

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Health and Development Checks in Early Childhood Education (HDC) Program

Enhanced Support for Early Childhood Health and Development Checks

 

Early childhood education and care providers are being encouraged to avail themselves of grants aimed at facilitating free health and development checks for 4-year-olds.

In collaboration with NSW Health, the NSW Department of Education is spearheading the Health and Development Checks in Early Childhood Education (HDC) Program, aimed at making these checks readily accessible to all 4-year-olds attending participating services, including public preschools, community preschools, and long-day care centres.

Recent data from the 2021 Australian Early Development Census (AEDC) revealed that over 44 percent of NSW children do not meet developmental milestones upon commencing school. Additionally, almost half of all 4-year-olds miss out on their recommended health and development assessments.

The HDC program represents a strategic investment, with local health district professionals teaming up with early childhood services to schedule these checks and identify any necessary support ahead of school entry. The assessments cover various aspects of children’s health and development, including cognitive, social, and emotional development, speech and communication skills, motor skills, and physical growth.

Health and Development Checks in Early Childhood Education (HDC) Program

Early childhood education and care providers are being encouraged to avail themselves of grants aimed at facilitating free health and development checks for 4-year-olds.

Furthermore, the HDC program aims to boost the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children meeting developmental milestones across all five Australian Early Development Census domains to 55 percent by 2031, aligning with Closing the Gap target 4.

To facilitate the HDC program, the NSW Department of Education has allocated over $4 million to its HDC Participation Grant Program. This initiative aims to aid eligible services in accessing the HDC program more efficiently.

Eligible services participating in the HDC program in 2024 can apply for grant funding across three categories, with a total of up to $7,500 in available funds.

These categories include:

  1. Staffing support for the health and development checks program, such as providing relief for educators to complete pre-assessment questionnaires or support children during the checks.
  2. Space development for the health and development checks, including repurposing or refurbishing rooms within the service.
  3. Capacity-building initiatives to support children’s health and development post-check, such as attending workshops or completing training.

Interested services can check their eligibility for the Health and Development Checks in Early Childhood Education (HDC) Program grant and submit applications through the department’s website using the SmartyGrants platform. The application window closes on March 31, 2024.

 

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Health News

Tweed Hospital will shut its doors in three months’ time

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The new Tweed Valley Hospital will open in three months’ time. NSW Health has confirmed the existing Tweed Hospital in Tweed Heads will close.

Tweed Hospital will shut its doors in three months’ time

 

By Sarah Waters

The doors to Tweed Hospital will close in three months’ time, but questions remain over what will happen to the disused facility and site on Powell St and Florence Street in Tweed Heads.

A spokesperson for Northern NSW Local Health District confirmed Tweed Hospital, built in 1972, will close following the opening of the new Tweed Valley Hospital in Kingscliff on May 14.

Only a few community outreach services, such as BreastScreen NSW services will continue to be delivered either at, or nearby, the existing hospital site in Tweed Heads.

The spokesperson for Northern NSW Local Health District said ‘future uses’ for the aging health facility were being investigated.

“The outcomes of site investigations will be considered alongside local and state policy considerations.

“The NSW Government has a formal policy and process to guide the divestment of surplus property owned by NSW Government agencies and consideration of future uses.

“This policy and process will apply to the divestment of the Tweed Hospital site once services transfer to the new Tweed Valley Hospital and the existing hospital is decommissioned.”

The new Tweed Valley Hospital will open in three months’ time. NSW Health has confirmed the existing Tweed Hospital in Tweed Heads will close.

The new Tweed Valley Hospital will open in three months’ time. NSW Health has confirmed the existing Tweed Hospital in Tweed Heads will close.

The new $723.3 million Tweed Valley Hospital has been hailed as one of the largest regional capital health investments funded by the NSW Government.

It will allow 5000 patients to be treated each year and has been designed to provide the health services required for the growing Northern Rivers population.

Patients, staff and visitors will be able to access free parking at the new hospital.

There is also a bus stop directly opposite the hospital on 771 Cudgen Road, Cudgen, (opposite Kingscliff TAFE)

More information on transport options will be provided by NSW Health in the coming weeks.

SIDEBAR:

Community members are invited to take a behind-the-scenes look at the new Tweed Valley Hospital.

The Tweed Valley Hospital Community Open Day will be help on Saturday, March 16, 2024, from 10am – 2pm

Location: Tweed Valley Hospital, 771 Cudgen Road, Cudgen.

The public will have a chance to walk through some of the new hospital’s key services including the emergency department, maternity, intensive care, cancer care and outpatients’ services.

There will be an information and exhibition zone, fun activities for the kids and refreshments.

 To register, please visit here.

 

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