The First App for Alzheimer's Patients
In recent years I’ve come across several instances of students developing technology for seniors. But I was genuinely impressed by the creation of 12-year-old Emma Yang. Emma was one of the recipients of the “Ten Under Twenty” innovation awards announced earlier this year. Her app, called Timeless, helps Alzheimer’s patients and their caregivers and families.
“My idea is simple,” Emma says, “An app that helps Alzheimer’s patients recognize their loved ones, remember events, and stay connected and engaged with the people around them.”
Emma was inspired to develop the app by her frustrations in trying to connect long-distance with her grandmother. “One day, my grandma forgot my birthday and my Dad’s birthday. She suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. She lives in Hong Kong, and we live in New York. The distance makes it hard to stay engaged with her, especially as the illness progresses. Recognizing people and remembering who they are is becoming increasingly difficult for her. She can’t remember if she’s already spoken. She can’t remember phone numbers and addresses and struggles when she tries to call her friends.”
Emma says the Timeless app is the first of its kind. It directly addresses problems of memory loss and confusion. For example, it’s not unusual for an Alzheimer’s patient to make multiple phone calls to the same person in a short period of time. If Timeless detects that, the app will stop the call and ask, “are you sure you want to make this call?” Other problems include the inability to remember the names of family and friends, or even the name of the patient. Timeless includes tools such as artificial-intelligence-based facial recognition that help to deal with this, and even a button to remind the patient of his or her own name.
In the app, the user can recognize who is in front of them. “When given a photo of a person, the app compares it with a pre-enrolled one and identifies who the person is,” Emma says. “This solves a common problem among Alzheimer’s patients — forgetting who their family and friends are or not being able to recognize them.”
The app also provides family and friends with a means of updating their activities to keep the patient involved.
I caught up with Emma in Hong Kong where she was visiting her grandmother.
Did you have much experience in programming and coding before you started? I started with basic programming but up to that point I’d never made a full-blown app before, especially for iOS. So this is really my first time doing an app from scratch.
How much research did you do to see if there was anything comparable on the marketplace? I did do a lot of research on what Alzheimer’s patients have difficulty with, things like having difficulty recognizing people and staying engaged. I tried to implement those features into the app as much as possible.
Where are you with the app at this stage? I have a fully-functional prototype right now, but I’m still in the process of fully developing it. I plan to finish developing it and roll it out by the end of the year. I plan to be able to test it in the hands of real Alzheimer’s patients after I fully develop it.
Do you have any investors who are backing you, or are you doing this all on your own? I did receive a scholarship last year, it’s called the Michael Perelstein Discover Your Passion Scholarship fund. This is my passion in computer science and continuing to develop this app.
Emma notes that while we may be a long way from a cure for this insidious disease, there are things that can be done to improve the quality of life of the patient and the family. “We can allow technology to do what it’s good at, such as facial recognition, and use it to solve problems that we cannot solve ourselves. The potential for technology to be able to help my grandmother, and others suffering from Alzheimer’s along the way, is what inspired me to create Timeless.”
Author Gary Kaye