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Mary Brotherton
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Inside my Brain

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Sunday, January 15, 2006

Two research teams at the Florida Institute of Technology (FIT) are working on a project that is expected to help support independent living for persons diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease (AD). The technology is expected to promote peace of mind for the patient’s family and friends, provide invaluable information for caregivers and healthcare professionals, and assist caregivers.

AD affects approximately 5 million people in the United States and more than 30 million people worldwide, with 100,000 diagnoses in the state of Florida alone. The most common cause of dementia, AD interferes with daily living skills by impairing physical, mental, and emotional abilities. Statistics project that the number of persons affected by the disorder in the United States will nearly triple by the year 2050.

In the United States, the cost of caring for patients with AD was more than $110 billion per year in the early 1990s. The low average yearly cost per patient placed in institutions is currently about $45,000. The research being done at FIT suggests that if their technology can keep just 100,000 diagnosed persons at home for one year, the savings could exceed $4 billion.

Dr. Frank M. Webbe and Dr. S. Ann Becker have teamed together with student researchers and community volunteers to create technology that an older person will want to use, and will make caregivers’ lives easier.

“A great invention is worthless if it only collects dust,” said Webbe. “It has to be viable to be used.”

The device, called a PocketBuddy, will weigh less than five ounces, and at the size of an index card, will be small enough to fit in a man’s shirt pocket. Sixteen months ago, Becker was inspired when she realized how easily and often her 15 year old daughter used a cell phone to send text messages to her friends. A touch screen, with little or no typing necessary will make the PocketBuddy easy for anyone to use, regardless of his or her level of computer knowledge.

Realizing that those who provide care for patients with AD may be tired or overwhelmed from the never ending stress of being solely responsible for the patient, the PocketBuddy teams are trying to incorporate many features that will make the device not only useful, but fun and convenient to use. Family and friends who would like to be involved in the daily lives of a patient may be unable, due to work schedules, geographic distance, or other limitations. Often, caregivers have no idea where to turn for a support network, and can feel as isolated from society as the patient.

The PocketBuddy will become an invaluable asset for distant family members, healthcare providers, friends, and caregivers. It will provide portable, noninvasive support for gathering data about the Alzheimer patient observed during daily caregiving activities. It will also "wake up" for each daily event, issuing both audio and text reminders to the caregiver, requiring a simple response indicating completion of a task. These events can be as simple as reminding the caregiver to bring medications to a doctor’s appointment, or remembering to bring water for an outing. The device can store important information such as emergency contacts, names, addresses, and phone numbers or location of important documents.

The PocketBuddy will also provide an easy way to record the patient’s behavior and physical condition on a daily basis. “The information gathered can be transferred online to show a clear picture of what is going on with a patient,” said Becker. “There will be an online blog where caregivers can go to discuss problems, vent, solve problems, or just leave messages for other family members.”

“It would be awesome to see how patients are really doing. My father is aging, and he has medical issues. When I call home, he and my mother tell me they are fine, but with a device like this, I would be able to know that they are really okay.”

One of her graduate students has a grandmother with dementia and he sees that this is a very positive step.

“We are fortunate,” said Webbe, “to attract the best and brightest students here at FIT.” The student researchers will work closely with volunteer caregivers from the East Central Florida Memory Clinic to make the device as easy to use as possible. The students are also working to create interesting games for caregivers or patients to play online with others in the network.

The network is a valuable piece of the project. The device will link caregivers to other caregivers, providing an important social and professional support system. “Just knowing that you are not alone,” said Becker,” is often enough to keep going.”

Webbe said, “Everybody is different. We are trying to determine what is best for each person. It will be an interesting challenge to create something for everyone. There’s stuff going on that will impact lives in a positive way. Serious illness and depression for caregivers gets higher as they age. The PocketBuddy will be able to help us help the caregivers as much as the patients.”

The researchers envision this being utilized by more than just Alzheimer’s patients and caregivers in the future. There are many diseases or conditions that isolate individuals in their homes. Pregnant women are often confined to their beds for months at a time. Webbe said, “Anytime someone is homebound, they can use this as a way to stay connected. It will be cheaper than a laptop, and easier to use.”

This device is still in the research and development phase, with a prototype expected late 2006, and a fully functional system in 2007.

For general information, email Dr. Webbe at and for technology questions, email Dr. Becker at or call Karen Rhine at 321-674-8963.