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Toronto hackathon seeks new solutions to help dementia patients

Many seniors face challenges “that can be mitigated right now, today, with the technologies we have available,” says HackerNest’s Shaharris Beh.

How do you tackle a problem like dementia? In the absence of a cure for the collection of brain disorders that affect an estimated 47 million people globally, Shaharris Beh is calling on tech developers for answers.

Beh's non-profit organization HackerNest has partnered with Facebook to host a two-day competition in Toronto this weekend, known as a hackathon, where developers will be teamed with patients, caregivers, researchers and health professionals to design products aimed at improving the lives of dementia sufferers.

Beh, founder of HackerNest, anticipates that more than 250 competitors, as young as 16 and from as far away as Iraq, will attend the DementiaHack event at George Brown College's waterfront campus, where they'll be expected to toil from 10 a.m. Saturday till 4 p.m. Sunday on creating a product.

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Individuals with dementia face "heartbreaking, overwhelming challenges that can be mitigated right now, today, with the technologies we have available," Beh said, noting that he hopes to see new startup ventures emerge from the event, now in its second year.

"A hackathon is hands-down the most efficient and meritocratic way of approaching innovation," he said, explaining that a typical company could spend months in research and development to come up with a product or service, whereas "a hackathon can do that in two days."

DementiaHack is part of a larger push from health-care institutions, seniors organizations, companies and investors to produce health-care technologies for an aging population. In October, for instance, AARP, a large U.S. non-profit that advocates for people over 50, announced it was forming a $40-million (U.S.) investment fund with the asset-management arm of JPMorgan Chase & Co. for companies developing health care innovations for older adults. Meanwhile, a growing number of gadgets, including wireless sensors that track seniors' movements, personal emergency-response systems and automated medication dispensers, are making their way into the marketplace.

"The demand for innovation to help support elder adults or seniors is growing exponentially," said Dr. William Reichman, president and chief executive officer of the Toronto geriatric health care and research centre Baycrest Health Sciences.

As baby boomers enter retirement age, they're expecting their senior years to be more fulfilling and more active than previous generations did, Reichman said. "So there's going to have to be new tools, new techniques, new services, new ways of being part of the world."

But designing technologies for seniors presents its own challenges.

"It's a market that people are still trying to put a finger on because they're not quick adopters of technology. They're very finicky," said Dr. Hayman Buwan, a clinical fellow at Toronto's Providence Healthcare who specializes in physical medicine and geriatric rehabilitation.

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Buwan's team won last year's DementiaHack with a solution called CareUmbrella, which is now in the early stages of testing for eventual commercialization. It involves strategically placing NFC stickers, which are small, passive electrical circuits, around the home of a dementia patient. Whenever the patient taps one of the stickers with a portable device, such as a smartphone, watch or tablet, the sticker emits a code to CareUmbrella's Web portal, which links to a personalized video, audio or text.

For example, Buwan explained, if a patient were to tap on a sticker attached to her microwave oven, a video created by her caregiver might automatically appear on her smartphone, giving her instructions on to how use the microwave to heat up her dinner.

"It actually enables the patient to not only use it themselves, but also stay independent as much as possible," he said, observing that too often, caregivers wanting to protect their loved ones unintentionally limit their ability to do things on their own.

Many technologies designed for seniors similarly take away their autonomy, he said. "People think that [dementia patients] are not capable of doing things, so what they do is they say, 'Oh, this is an old person. Let's make it dead simple and let's make it dummy-proof.'"

The key, he said, is to design technologies that are simple and intuitive to use, as an older population may not be accustomed to using mobile apps or digital devices, while at the same time ensuring the product does not limit their abilities and can be customized to suit their needs.

At Baycrest, which owns for-profit companies Cogniciti Inc. and Baycrest Global Solutions, Reichman said one problem he sees is that the tech industry targeting the elderly often comes up with unnecessary solutions. For example, he said many products are available to monitor and collect data on a senior's daily activities, such as how many times they've opened their refrigerator or how frequently they've used the toilet. Yet the caregivers or primary-care doctors who are the intended end-users of the data may not know what to do with this information.

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"There's a little bit too much of this pushing solutions out into the community and to the end users," he said, "when in fact, we need a little bit more pulling, where the end users say, 'Here are my main problems. Industry, can you provide a solution?'"

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