The positive impact of companion robots on older people living with dementia has been confirmed in a European study, following the results of a 12-month pilot project.

The MARIO project saw the development of a companion robot for people with dementia by a consortium of experts from the health care sector, robotics industry and dementia groups led by NUI Galway.

Professor Dympna Casey from the School of Nursing and Midwifery at NUI Galway, and MARIO project coordinator, said the robot was designed to overcome workforce shortages and provide companionship to people at risk of social isolation.

“Loneliness is a key public health concern across many age groups and especially for older people with dementia. We know that social health and social connectedness are important to the quality of life of people with dementia,” Prof Casey said.

“Human companionship is the best way of promoting social health but the reality is that our health care services do not have the resources to provide this service. So we devised MARIO to be there for people living with dementia.”

This led to the three year EU Horizon 2020 MARIO project (Managing Active and Healthy Aging with the use of Caring Service Robots), funded by the Framework Programme for Research and Innovation. The project involved five EU countries and a team of up to 40 people.

A key feature of the project was the user-led design in that the robot was developed with and for people with dementia. The result was MARIO, a 4.5 foot white robot with large animated eyes who can be activated by voice or by a touchscreen which he carries.

This allows people with dementia to access the newspapers, listen to their favourite songs, provide reminders of upcoming events, store family photos and connect with their friends and families.

Pilot testing of the MARIO robot was carried out with people with dementia and caregivers at three sites in Ireland, the UK and Italy for a period of over 12 months.

“MARIO was an ambitious project from the beginning. We managed to combine an array of expertise through pan-European partnerships,” Prof Casey said.

“We brought together expertise in robotics, semantic data analytics, artificial intelligence and interactive touchscreen technology, as well as healthcare and nursing knowledge. However, the most critical element were the older people with dementia and their caregivers, who welcomed MARIO into their lives and allowed us, through their insights and knowledge, to make MARIO into the success he has become.”

MARIO’s main function in life is to connect people with dementia to family, friends, carers and the community at large thereby maintaining and increasing their social interactions and reducing loneliness.

According to a European Commission review of MARIO: “Providing adequate care to the elderly is essential to ensure that Europe’s senior citizens are able to spend their later years living a healthy, happy and independent life. But without support, many face loneliness, a lack of mobility and exercise, and forgetfulness on a daily basis. However, with the use of modern technology and particularly the development of robotic solutions, Europe’s elderly population can feel young again and lead a much safer and richer life.”