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Honesty about dementia with an AI companion

Artificial intelligence is ubiquitous with the year 2023, but what does the future look like for aged care?

<p>‘Viv’ is the intersection between artists and psychologists from the University  of New South Wales Sydney, such as Professor Jill Bennett and Dr Gail Kenning [pictured] [Source: UNSW]</p>

‘Viv’ is the intersection between artists and psychologists from the University of New South Wales Sydney, such as Professor Jill Bennett and Dr Gail Kenning [pictured] [Source: UNSW]

Key points:

  • It is predicted that the number of Australians with dementia will more than double by 2058 to 849,300 people
  • The artificial intelligence companion, ‘Viv,’ first came to life as a digital character based on four women with similar symptoms of vascular dementia


Researchers from the University of New South Wales Sydney have started to introduce ‘Viv,’ an AI companion designed to support people with dementia, to residents of aged care facilities.

Viv’s experience reflects that of many people living with dementia, as she is part of a suite of digital characters being developed by the felt Experience and Empathy Lab at UNSW Sydney to foster companionship for people living with dementia.

Dr Gail Kenning, a lead researcher from fEEL, has examined the impact of creativity on supporting health and well-being, with a particular focus on ageing and 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,” Dr Kenning explained.

“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.

“They can also help calm people if they are overstimulated or emotionally dysregulated or motivate them if they are feeling apathetic.”

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 psychosocial 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,” Dr Kenning explained.

“Viv’s ability to respond or join in a conversation is a powerful psychosocial 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.”

The fEEL website hosts a video demonstration of the project, including how Viv responds to voice prompts from Dr Kenning.

Use cases for AI-based projects, such as robotic dogs, have been thought to help people with dementia adjust to the anxieties of unfamiliar settings and personalisation. As Dr Kenning explained, the companionship provided by Viv and Friends can allow people to feel connected and regulate emotional responses.

Viv is able to explain what it feels like to live with dementia, slowly and patiently, to researchers.

“It can be confusing and disorienting and at times downright scary, but there are also beautiful moments of connection and joy amidst the challenges,” the Viv AI said.

Researchers hope to create similar models to respond to and reflect the life experiences of residents with other conditions, such as Huntington’s disease, as 2023 has shaped up to be the year that AI integration transforms the future of Australia’s aged care sector.


What are your thoughts on AI as a tool for improving an aged care facility? Let the team at Talking Aged Care know and subscribe to the FREE weekly newsletter for more news, information and updates!


Related content:

Artificial intelligence used to predict Parkinson’s disease

Dementia Australia has called on Members of Parliament to deliver psychosocial support

What older Australians want out of the new Aged Care Act

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