Memory Impairment Q & A with Merilee Griffin of Memo Touch

We recently interviewed Merilee Griffin, PHD, the founder and president  of Memo Touch. Dr. Griffin developed Memo as an interactive device to help those with memory impairment maintain their independence as long as possible while helping to lessen the demands placed upon caregivers.  She cared for her mother who suffered from Alzheimer’s and recognized that there was a need for a simplistic and easy to use device to help provide daily reminders to those with cognitive deficits.

In this interview she offers several helpful pieces of information on caring for those suffering from Alzheimer’s:

Here is the transcript from the interview:

Automated Operator:  This call is now being recorded.

Merilee Griffin:  Would you like me to respond to the first question then?

Interviewer:  If you could, please introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about the Memo.

Merilee:  OK. I am retired from a couple of previous careers and I had the idea for Memo actually 20 years ago when I was taking care of my mother who had Alzheimer’s and I hadn’t had time to work on it until the summer of 2010. I had a break in my work schedule and was able to start working on it then. It just kind of blossomed into another career for me since then. The Memo came about as a result from my own experience caring for my mom and understanding how memory loss so dramatically affects a person’s life (read about what causes memory loss). It just makes everyday life very chaotic. The person never knows what day it is or what to expect and doesn’t understand what’s happening and has to be reminded many times of things, frequently repeats questions and stories and things for the caregiver. So it has a dramatic effect both on the person experiencing memory loss and on the family caregiver.

So Memo was born in response to those kinds of situations and it simply provides information every day, all day long, that the person needs to remember. And we think the reason it is successful is that it allows family caregivers to provide this information on a very constant basis without being physically present. They can post messages from any place where they have Internet access. So they could be at work or in a distant city, in their own home or wherever, and they can respond to the person’s needs remotely.

Interviewer:  Can you tell me a little bit about the device itself?

Merilee:  It’s built on the ARCHOS 101 Android tablet. It’s a 10‑inch tablet that looks a little like the iPad but it came to market actually as a competitor to the iPad about a year ago. Our software overrides all of the original programming so that an elder who does not have Internet experience or computer experience cannot accidentally touch an icon or pull up a menu or go out onto the Internet and get very confused and frustrated about things. So the person only will see what the family decides is appropriate. The person can start very simply with just the day, date, and time, and maybe one message. That message will either crawl across the screen or it can be set to fade in and out and the person can vary the speeds of the messages.

When the person is used to that or if they have a little more technical experience, the family can add other features, such as today’s weather, photo albums, phone lists and so on, that are accessible by touch screen.

Then they can also add a calendar where they can add repeating events. They can put audio alerts on those events to draw the person’s attention. And there is a to‑do list that will display things the person needs to remember to do that day.

Interviewer:  What do you find is the greatest need for such a program like this?

Merilee:  Well, I think it’s pretty well established that we have an oncoming onslaught of an aging population susceptible to Alzheimer’s disease and other progressive diseases. Everyone’s goal, I think, is to keep people in their own homes as long as possible. No one wants to leave their own family home and go into a facility if that’s not really necessary. So one of the main challenges to independent living is memory impairment, so the person can’t remember what day it is and what they’re supposed to do and what’s happening. The Memo can provide enough assistance sometimes to help people in their own homes.

So it’s appropriate for people who have early stage dementia or mild cognitive impairment. That could be the result of a progressive disease, but it might also be a head injury or stroke, and there are several other causes of that kind of memory loss.

So we estimate roughly that there are something like 1.5 million to two million people in the United States at this time who have that kind of memory impairment. So we’re hoping it will help a large number of people.

Interviewer:  Absolutely. Do you find that there are many hidden benefits or particular benefits for the caregivers?

Merilee:  Well, we designed it as much for the caregiver as for the person with memory loss. It’s hard for people who have not been in that situation to understand how terribly confusing and frustrating and stressful it is when people that you care about can’t remember things. The caregivers are frequently taking many phone calls during the same day asking the very same questions, or they’re making many phone calls during the day, or they’re stopping by the person’s house frequently to update a calendar or leave a Post‑It Note.

We think the Memo can help family caregivers keep their lives on track and reduce the amount of time and frustration spent on repetitious things so that the time they do spend with their loved one can be a little more productive and fruitful and focus on things that are pleasurable, instead of dealing with the constant memory loss issues.

Interviewer:  Obviously, the goal for many is to age in place. The reality is sometimes that doesn’t happen. Can this be used in a more structured setting, such as an assisted living facility where they try to maintain as much independence but need some help with daily living activities?

Merilee:  Yes. We have not had the opportunity to pilot it in an assisted living facility yet, but we’re very interested in doing that. We think that it will help paid caregivers in facilities as much as it does family caregivers reduce the amount of time, and stressful time, that they spend with repetitive care, repeating information, and allow them to have more productive and pleasant interactions with their residents. We are developing a plan for marketing this to assisted living and home care agencies so that they can help their own staff deal with the need for constant repetition.

Interviewer:  What are your customers saying so far about Memo?

Merilee:  Well, we’ve been piloting this for almost a year now and we have learned several things about how it should be introduced and how it should be used that I think will be helpful. There’s a list of tips for introducing Memo on our website. The initial experience if the family doesn’t do it in a thoughtful, planned manner can be negative. Many people who need the Memo have had negative experiences with computers and technology in the past and they kind of reject it outright. They especially reject it if it comes as a kind of an insult. If someone says, for example, “Grandma, you really need this because your memory is so bad.” That’s a very bad way to introduce it.

So what we’ve learned is that if the person rejects it, the family should immediately drop the subject, put it away, and reintroduce it at a later time. Often the person kind of rejects it. It takes some time to get used to this new thing in their environment, especially if they’re not computer savvy to begin with.

And so, it takes time and because of that, we have adjusted our return policies so that people have three months to introduce the Memo over and over again if that’s necessary and give the person time to adjust to it.

Once they have adjusted to it ‑‑ and some people do it very quickly ‑‑ but once they’ve adjusted to it, it becomes a very valuable and necessary part of their daily life. They’ll gradually start checking it for information when they have questions and when they find answers there, they’ll start using it. It’s been a very pleasant experience for both the elder and their family members.

Interviewer:  And I’m very concerned for privacy. I know a lot of people are concerned about things being live on the Internet and through the cyber world of privacy issues. Is there any concern with that?

Merilee:  Well, we do have the family caregivers site in a secure website and it’s accessible only through password and the family can change the password as frequently as they need to. So it’s really up to the person who purchases the Memo. That person becomes the administrator of the site and can give the password to other persons in the family or paid caregivers or whatever. But it really is up to that family caregiver, that primary account holder to protect the privacy by changing the password, giving it out appropriately and so on.

Interviewer:  Merilee, what are the costs associated with Memo?

Merilee:  Well, we sell the tablet for the same price that it’s available for in the retail market, $299. Then, in addition to that, the family needs a subscription to our family caregiver website which they can purchase at six months for $29 a month, or a discount for a year subscription which is $300, or $25 a month. Those are the only two costs. Then if they renew the subscription for the second year, of course, they don’t have to buy the tablet, so it would be $300 to operate it for a year. We understand that that’s a big outlay of cash for most families. But compared to what the cost of having home health care workers come in, or just the cost of time and gas and so on that family caregivers are currently spending stopping by their house to keep things straight, it’s probably a very reasonable cost.

Interviewer:  Are there other advantages over other monitoring systems that you’d like to mention?

Merilee:  Well, yes. Now, the Memo does not monitor. There are many systems that are coming to market or a few already on the market that have more advanced technology, that senses the environment, that records and monitors activity, uses algorithms to detect times when the person is out of their normal schedule, can even sense things like temperature in the environment, take blood pressure and serve as the platform for medical information and so on. We decided not to get into any of those advanced technologies because we wanted a very simple targeted device that does one thing and does one thing very well. I think there are many other devices coming to market that do what Memo does ‑‑ they do the reminders. But unlike Memo, they offer that service along with quite a few other features, such as the simplified email, video chat, photo sharing, a whole lot of other features.

And because of that, it’s not appropriate for the same population that Memo is designed for. Once a person’s short‑term memory is impaired, it’s very difficult for them to learn new things because short‑term memory is the gateway to long‑term memory where learning occurs.

So if a person doesn’t already know, for example, how to use the touch screen or how to access the Internet, or how to use email, if they don’t already have those skills at the time memory loss occurs, it’s very difficult for them to learn those things. They can be very easily confused by having a menu screen up that they don’t anticipate or getting to a website and they don’t know where they are and they don’t know how to get back.

So we’ve designed the Memo to be very targeted toward a group of people who have short‑term memory loss and to simply be their memory assistance during the day. It was a tough trade‑off but we decided not to get into other functions that are more expensive, more complicated for people to learn and use. Many of these things are not on the market yet.

Memo is different from all the other products that we’re familiar with at this time.

Interviewer:  Is there any additional information that you would like to add?

Merilee:  Well, I guess I would just say that thinking about my own mother and the last few years that she was able to live independently, we just hope that Memo will help a lot of people.

Interviewer:  Is there a place that people can go to learn more and be able to bring this into their home?

Merilee:  Our website has a lot more information. There’s contact information there where people can easily email or phone in questions and we’ll answer those very promptly.

Interviewer:  Fantastic.

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