By Arielle Townsend
When one of her family members began experiencing communication challenges as a result of dementia, Dr. Ana Ines Ansaldo started using old family photos to engage and interact with them. “I began noticing an improvement in communication and overall quality of life when we shared these photos, despite the advanced stage of their illness,” she recalls.
The moments shared with her loved one inspired Dr. Ansaldo, a professor at the School of Speech Pathology and Audiology at the University of Montreal, to develop a tool that would help caregivers and family members better communicate with people living with dementia. What followed would be named the COMmunication Proche Aidant (COMPAs) app.
COMPAs works like an online treasure chest to store images, music and videos from significant moments in a person’s life. Family members and caregivers can use these special moments to spark genuine, person-centred moments of engagement with people experiencing verbal communication challenges as a result of advanced dementia.
“Many caregivers told me they had difficulty communicating with residents, but with COMPAs their ability to connect with them improved almost instantly,” Dr. Ansaldo says.
The app is easy to use, with an intuitive interface and comes complete with hyperlinked guides and YouTube tutorials.
Dr. Ansaldo believes the app’s ‘secret sauce’ is the emotional weight each memory carries. “The app is effective because it’s based on empathy and sharing emotions. It takes the conversation out of the realm of care and focuses it on the person, not the illness.”
From Bench to Bedside
When the Centre for Aging + Brain Health Innovation (CABHI) announced a call for innovators to apply to their Spark Program for early-stage aging and brain health solutions, Dr. Ansaldo saw an opportunity that would help get her innovation into the hands of those who needed it most. Through the Spark Program, CABHI connected Dr. Ansaldo to the Centre d’hébergement Paul-Bruchési, where she tested and validated the app. The validation process included stakeholder feedback and testimonials from family members.
Thanks to user feedback, Dr. Ansaldo now knows that the app can be used successfully by people living with dementia at home. “We heard from a family caregiver who says her mother learned to use the app on her own. This is exciting because now we know that there is the potential for those with cognitive impairment to gain independence and confidence from navigating the app.”
Supporting Seniors and their Family Members During COVID-19
Today, Dr. Ansaldo and her team are getting ready to expand the app into 11 long-term care settings in Montreal in response to COVID-19. The expansion will include a video call component and training for long-term care staff members on how to use the app.
“Since the lack of communication is one of the main causes of cognitive and physical deterioration, COMPAs could even be thought of as a way of preserving a person’s mental health during the current health crisis. It could support not only the person (resident) but the family that are distressed because they cannot see their loved ones.”
There are also plans to develop the Android version of the app since it is currently only available on iOS.
Even with plans to expand the app in the works, Dr. Ansaldo maintains that at its core, COMPAs’ chief function is to trigger an emotional response in people living with dementia that goes beyond words.
“It’s all about the intention to communicate. Sometimes, spending 15 to 20 minutes of quality time allowing a person to relive pleasant moments from their life can establish more of a connection than words ever could.
Visit www.cabhi.com to learn more about innovations that are supporting seniors and caregivers during COVID-19.
Arielle Townsend is the Marketing & Communications Content Specialist, Centre for Aging and Brain Health Innovation (CABHI).