OCAD University

Postcard Memories project helps support elders with memory loss and Alzheimer's disease

Postcard Memories screenshot
Screenshot from Postcard Memories. Image courtesy Martha Ladly

A new iPad app developed by OCAD U researchers in the Mobile Experience Lab uses sensitive inclusive design to foster positive wellbeing and enhance cognition in elders with early onset Alzheimer’s disease, and also help them connect with friends and family. Postcard Memories is a research project led by Dr. Martha Ladly, an OCAD U professor and recent Associate Dean, Graduate Studies, who is on a visiting fellowship at the European University Institute in Florence this term. The project focuses on supporting the skills elders have and can maintain and even build, instead of dwelling on memory loss. It’s a unique approach that combines collected personal memories in both physical and digital artifact formats, with mobile technology.

The project was inspired, in part, by Ladly’s experience with her own father’s memory loss. After heart disease suddenly left her father with vascular and memory problems, and with no trouble remembering events from his youth, she wanted to find a way to help him access important events and stories that he was having trouble remembering from the recent past. She created a book for him about a holiday that they took together to visit his family home in Newfoundland, which included annotated postcards to help him remember the trip.

“It worked very well,” said Ladly. “He looked through that book often, and he was able to recall and speak about the people and places we visited. It was about making the memories physical and tangible again.” Ladly’s father was also interested in learning how to use an iPad, so she made a digital version for him. “I was interested to see if he could learn a new skill, and he found it quite magical. It surprised me that he could learn to use the iPad because he had never really used a computer.”

Postcard Memories beta

In the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease elders who are having memory problems can still actively engage in recalling events with families and friends, and photos, notes and postcards (in both physical and digital form) can help in this process by providing prompts. “There are ways to build memory scaffolds for people who would like to participate in activities to improve their memory,” said Ladly.

Postcard Memories uses the Montessori learning paradigm, which encourages active engagement and sharing. This is how the app works:
-A family member or friend creates a group and a memory event
-Group members are invited to send postcards (physical as well as digital images, music files, video or audio recordings)
-Group members can access all the postcards received and arrange them in a digital gallery and/or physical book
-Group members share the postcard galleries and books with their elder, and encourage them to engage with and enjoy the collected memories
-Both the individual postcards, and a personalised memory book can be printed out by the family members for the elder and for themselves.

Partnerships, user testing and taking it to market

Ladly worked with Dr. Ron Baecker, Director of the University of Toronto’s Technologies for Aging Gracefully Lab (TAGlab), in the early stages of the project. She and her team have since forged partnerships with Dr. Frank Rudzicz at the Toronto Rehabilitation InstituteThe University Health Network for the project, which is supported by the GRAND Network of Centres of Excellence. Another new technological and potential business relationship is with Canada Post, which will enable the app users to send and receive printed postcards.

The app, which has been under development with Ladly’s research team of OCAD U graduate students for a year, is in the approval phase for user testing with groups of Alzheimer’s patients and their families, with a testing scheduled for summer 2014. The goal is to test and then refine the app and bring it to market.

“We’re hoping to see multiple applications for this technology, not just for elders,” said Ladly about the broader possibilities of the app. “We’ll start by testing with elders to see how they interact with the digital and physical, find out how their families become involved and also observe the impact on memory. We’re also going to test the emotional impact, to see if this makes people happy — if it’s enjoyable and pleasurable for them to recall events together. We’re hoping it brings some support, efficacy and enjoyment to people with memory loss and their carers, families and friends.”

Learn more:

OCAD U’s Mobile Experience Lab 

Martha Ladly

Interview with Martha Ladly

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