mental health

YMCA Program Uses Robots to Help Older Adults Improve Cognitive Skills

Through a test phase, the program aims to help stimulate the brain through technology and learning

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We're wrapping up November with important information for Alzheimer's Awareness Month.

According to the World Health Organization, around 50 million people around the world are estimated to have dementia. Every year, about 10 million new cases result in Alzheimer’s disease.

In an effort to combat the effects, the YMCA of Metropolitan Dallas is doing something good for the community.

Studies show that technology -- digital devices like smartphones and tablets -- and learning new things can help minimize the chances for older adults to develop dementia and Alzheimer's.

Dr. Tonjia Grimble, senior project manager for the YMCA of Metropolitan Dallas, took that up a notch by adding robots to it.

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The spherical robots are controlled using an iPad and a specialized app.

“We often see our older adults playing Candy Crush or all of these other games, but this is something a little different. All of these things are designed to help their memory stay strong, cognitive ability to stay strong,” she said. “That actually improved their skill level in code and all things STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) because it’s a little bit different than just getting on the computer and playing on a smartphone.”

She taught a group of seniors at Park South YMCA how to operate rolling miniature robots called Sphero. The organization has education STEM kits that they use for youth groups but Grimble wanted to try the program on older adults to see how they could also benefit from it.

The adult program participants learned how to navigate and control the robots using block coding, JavaScript, and even binary code.

Alanna Quillen
YMCA program participant Larry Christopher learns from Dr. Tonjia Grimble

“As you get older it seems like you’re not supposed to have any more fun or your fun days are over, but playing with these is awesome. We have a wonderful time with it,” said program participant Larry Christopher. “It’s fantastic. You get a chance to play with an object that’s not attached to anything, it has a mind of its own.”

The students also learned how to synchronize the robots to music. They even put on their engineering hats and attached markers to the robots to make works of art.

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Larry's work of art using the robot

Grimble said the group has amazed her and hopes they can take these new skills home with them to improve their lives.

“I’m hoping that added element of excitement is just another layer that they can use to help them minimize their chances for Alzheimer’s and dementia,” said Grimble.

This is just the tip of the iceberg.

These classes were a test run, and Grimble said the program was a hit. So, in the new year, she hopes to have more classes to continue the innovative program.

"There’s tons more curriculum that we haven’t even taught them yet," she said. "What I’m hoping to do is invite more seniors and have more classes so it allows them to stretch their legs a little bit on these activities. And maybe mix some of the kids with the adults and have a peer one-on-one kind of teaching."

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Grimble is encouraging more seniors to get active, not just physically, but mentally.

“If you have an elderly or someone that is interested in learning more about how they can engage in this type of program, come visit us at the YMCA. We have all types of STEM programs for all,” she said.

Click here for more information or call 214-880-9622 to ask about programs for older adults.

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