Elderly lady in park

Observational research - Dementia and robots

Monday, 24 February, 2014

For people with dementia, it is very important to keep connections with the outside world. When living at home, people will often still go to the grocery store or to the hairdresser. However, when they are living in a long-term care home, the context changes greatly. Without meaningful communication, there is a high risk of social isolation and communication opportunities with friends or family members can also be further reduced.

Robot facilitates communication

Could a robot enhance engagement between the person with dementia living in a long-term care home and their family? Wendy Moyle and colleagues studied the use of a telepresence robot (Giraff) in communication. Giraff is a remotely controlled, mobile, human-height, telepresence robot and is specially designed for older and disabled people. When calling a family member, residents could use Skype or an iPad. However, in their article, the researcher explain that a clear advantage that Giraff has over other telecommunication devices is that the family has control in terms of connecting to their relative, virtually driving Giraff, and positioning the video camera so that both the family and resident can see each other as well as observe items of discussion within the environment.

Would you like to learn more? Watch the video (SBS2 Australia, YouTube) to see Prof. Moyle explain more about her research and research aims.

The study

Five people with dementia and their families participated in the study. Moyle and colleagues decided to take the robot to a long-term care facility and test it on premises. A total of 26 calls were analyzed. The researchers interviewed staff and family members and made video recordings of the interactions. Video recordings were analyzed using The Observer XT program which allows users to code observational data in millisecond intervals.  Facial emotional responses were coded using an observation scale: Observed Emotion Rating Scale (OERS), developed by other researchers (by Dr. Lawton and colleagues, 1996). This scale differentiates between pleasure, anger, anxiety or fear, and sadness. Moyle et al. coded facial emotional responses according to frequency and found that residents showed a general state of positive emotions across the calls with a high level of engagement. It is not explained why they chose to observe and code facial expressions manually. There are also several options available for automatic facial expression analysis which might in the future assist in analyzing a large number of videos. This might be an option for further research involving larger groups.

Moyle et al. conclude that the impact of Giraff on residents and their family was positive. They explain that family members could start conversations about items in the residents’ room which provided them with topics to discuss. Family members could also move the robot around in the room and point out interesting objects.

Future research

Since there is a new and improved second generation Giraff available, Moyle and colleagues suggest starting a larger trial for a longer time period. Moyle and colleagues state that the staff and families saw the advantages of Giraff and viewed the positive reactions of the residents. Clinicians should consider the current and future uses of this type of technology. In this kind of research, involving the resident, staff, and family in an early stage is the best way to get full insight on the actual situation.  

The Observer XT

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  • Moyle, W.; Jones, C.; Cooke, M.; O’Dwyer, S.; Sung, B.; Drummond, S. (2014). Connecting the person with dementia and family: a feasibility study of a telepresence robot. BMC Geriatrics, 14 (7), 1-11.
  • Lawton, M.P.; Van Haitsma, K.; Klapper, J. (1996). Observed affect in nursing home residents with Alzheimer’s disease. The Journals of Gerontology, Social Sciences, 51B, 3–14.
  • http://www.giraff.org/ 
  • SBS2 Australia - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UklgDdcf02Q