Elmcroft Senior Living is helping researchers determine whether a robot-guided video game can help slow dementia progression by encouraging older adults to exercise and socialize. The technology also may provide an answer to caregiver shortages, researchers said.

Vanderbilt University’s Nilanjan Sarkar, Ph.D., a mechanical engineering professor, Linda Beuscher, Ph.D., GNP-BC, an assistant professor in the School of Nursing, and colleagues recently finished testing the game with a total of 15 residents in two senior living communities. Some residents had cognitive impairments, and some did not.

“As we get older, we can become more isolated, and learning new skills and keeping moving is very important,” Beuscher, whose specialty is geriatric nursing at the Nashville, TN-based educational institution, said in a statement. “If you don’t use it, you lose it. We know that.”

Playing the game in pairs, residents controlled on-screen avatars by moving their arms and, therefore, the watch-style devices on their wrists. Periodically, a robot to the side of the screen would remind them that the object of the game was for each player to move his or her avatar’s books into the correct bin. Players earned extra points by helping the other player.

“Moving the books on the screen requires moving their shoulders, arms and wrists,” Beuscher said. “And then we’re keeping their brains active as they play the game. Most importantly, they’re engaging with one another.”

Early results show promise, according to the researchers. Fourteen of the residents kept returning to the room where the game was set up, gradually increasing the amount of time they wanted to spend playing the game.

The novelty of robot-led therapy has the potential to attract and entertain older users, Beuscher said. Elmcroft employees reported that pilot program participants were engaging with other residents a little more than they would have otherwise, even after a few sessions.

Elmcroft resident Kathryn Brown told the researchers that she enjoyed hearing the robot instruct her by name. She said she wanted to be part of the study so she could learn more about the technology.

“It took some effort, but I don’t think the game was too difficult,” she said. “It made me think more and be careful about my arm movements. This might very well help other senior citizens.”

Based on the pilot study results, the Vanderbilt team now is seeking grant money for a larger, more extensive study, which could lead to human caregivers being assisted by robot colleagues, Sarkar said.

“There are not enough younger people to take care of our older generations, and that’s why we’re designing intelligent, social robots that can talk to them, keep them from becoming isolated, lead them in appropriate physical exercise and help them with memory and cognition,” he said. “It’s not the total solution, but it can go far in helping the world’s elder generations.”

Watch the Vanderbilt video below to see the game in action.