Ontario Tech helps find new ways to treat dementia in Durham

Wally Bartfay and Andra-Duff Woskosky hold a Google Jam Session with community partners. It was held at Brilliant Catalyst building at Ontario Tech to describe and launch the CDU. Photo credit: Wally Bartfay

Ontario Tech University and Ontario Shores Centre for Mental Health Sciences in Whitby are using new therapies, including artificial intelligence (AI), to help patients with dementia.

They opened the Clinical Demonstration Unit (CDU) last October to help dementia patients live comfortably and improve their overall health and well-being. Patients come to the 32-bed unit, which is almost always at capacity, to find drug-free therapies.

The inside of the CDU.
The inside of the CDU. Photo credit: Wally Bartfay

The CDU has been working with Ontario Tech to experiment with ‘Little Sophia.’

Little Sophia is a robot created at Hanson Robotics in Hong Kong. She is used to provide personal companionship to people with dementia.

The robot learns on her own. There is no original programming in her system.

“They learn like how a child learns,” said Wally Bartfay, the associate dean of undergraduate studies at Ontario Tech. His wife, Emma Bartfay, operates the robot.

Bartfay said Little Sophia can ask things such as “What is wrong?” and “Do you need help?” She can also play music and do other things to help the patients feel comfortable.

The CDU is funded by Ontario Shores and Ontario Tech with each giving $35,000 to the project.

Meanwhile, Bartfay oversaw three Ontario Tech students in the CDU who worked with the patients themselves. One fourth-year business student, one fourth-year public health student and one graduate public health student each received $5,000 to work on their projects.

The public health students worked on music and light therapy to help the patients.

“Music therapy calms patients, where some deal with aggression, boredom or agitation,” said Bartfay. The students documented the effects the music had on the patients.

He said light therapy helps patients who have depression and can also promote calmness, happiness and improve sleep.

The CDU is also using a multi-sensory chair, called the Nordic Chair.

“It kind of looks like a La-Z-Boy,” Bartfay explained.

The chair has built-in speakers and a massage function. Nurses also put a heavy blanket on the patients which helps calm them and make them feel relaxed, according to Bartfay.

Finding different ways to help support people with dementia has been a great concern for many Canadians.

Dementia is a neurological disorder which results in the deterioration of memory.

According to the World Health Organization, 47.5 million people live with dementia worldwide.

It is one of many disorders that can cause death, disability and hospitalization.

Canada has more than 402,000 seniors living with dementia, according to Statistics Canada.

As well, the Alzheimer Society of Canada says there are 25,000 new people diagnosed per year. The organization predicts that by 2038, 1.5 million Canadians will be diagnosed with some form of dementia.

“It is a huge problem. As the world ages, we are going to have more cases of dementia globally,” he said.

According to Bartfay, dementia takes the short-term memory first and then the long-term. He said people with dementia will forget how to hold a spoon, then forget their loved-ones and then will eventually forget who they are.

He said patients stay a maximum of 59 days to be assessed. This helps to develop specific interventions for challenging behaviours related to dementia. Patients then return back to nursing or long-term care facilities in Durham Region.

Wally Bartfay and Andra-Duff Woskosky holds a Google jam session with community partners.
Wally Bartfay and Andra-Duff Woskosky hold a Google Jam Session with community partners. It was held at Brilliant Catalyst building at Ontario Tech to describe and launch the CDU. Photo credit: Wally Bartfay

A variety of community partners are asked for their input on the CDU. People with family members who have dementia can also provide a better insight to care for the patients.

“I’m through the roof. I’m dancing on Cloud 9, I am so proud of it and of what we have accomplished in one year and I know we are going to do much more in the next year,” said Bartfay.