April 19, 2023

UCalgary researcher hopes to drive change for people with dementia

New funding to help find balance between maintaining safety and preserving individual independence
Sayeh Bayat in hallway
Dr. Sayeh Bayat is looking to find ways to help dementia patients more accurately determine their driving capabilities. Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

For anyone living with dementia, the loss of independence and sense of community can often speed up the deterioration of their cognitive state.

Simple tasks like driving can be crucial in maintaining a strong connection, yet is sometimes phased out of their lives too early as a safety precaution.

Dr. Sayeh Bayat, PhD, saw all of the challenges first-hand when her grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia.

“Dementia can have a significant impact on a person’s life, affecting not just their memory and cognitive abilities but also their ability to do everyday tasks like driving,” she says. “There is still a lot that needs to be done in this area, and wearable and mobile technologies present a new and unique set of tools to come up with ways of supporting individuals with dementia.”

An assistant professor at the Schulich School of Engineering, Bayat has dedicated her research to working in the areas of technology and aging.

She recently received funding from the Alzheimer’s Association and Brain Canada, where her team will work alongside researchers at Sunnybrook Hospital and Baycrest Health Services in Toronto, to develop a mobile tech solution for aiding decision-making about driving for people with dementia.

Bayat’s research is amongst the wide array of projects we hope to spotlight as one of the four pillars of Schulich’s new strategic plan, Schulich Momentum: Enhancing Community, Expanding Impact, is Elevating Research and Innovation Impact.

Balancing safety with independence

One of the biggest challenges Bayat faces when talking about people with dementia driving is balancing safety with independence.

She says the condition has a significant impact on cognitive and functional abilities, which can affect an individual’s ability to drive. However, dementia is progressive, and individuals in the early stages of dementia may still be able to drive safely.

“Individuals with dementia who wish to continue driving are formally assessed for the progressive loss of cognition and function that would signal that driving may no longer be safe,” Bayat says. She adds the tests often have “limited predictability with respect to driving,” and could lead to someone giving up their licence prematurely.

She says it is heartbreaking for many to lose their ability to drive, sometimes needlessly, and she’s hoping to develop a more accurate and objective way of assessing fitness to drive, while ensuring that dementia patients only drive when it is safe for them to do so.

Our goal is to find a balance between maintaining safety on the road and preserving the independence and autonomy of older adults with dementia.

The intersection of health and engineering

To find that balance, Bayat says the highly collaborative project will use a digital device to collect driving data from individuals with mild cognitive impairment and mild dementia as they drive their own vehicles in their own, familiar, neighbourhoods. The team plans to recruit 60 people in Calgary and Toronto to test the devices, capturing subtle driving behaviours like impaired lane deviation, and collecting data for researchers.

Sayeh Bayat at virtual city

Sayeh Bayat is hoping to use technology to give dementia patients more accurate readings on their driving abilities.

Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

“The data collected would need to be analyzed to determine if the proposed system can accurately distinguish between different levels of cognitive impairment and if it is acceptable and usable among people with dementia,” Bayat says. “We believe this system, when fully developed, will yield a nuanced and granular level of naturalistic detail required to learn actual driving behaviours in dementia and inform decision-making about fitness to drive.”

The emotional toll

Wayne Hykaway remembers teaching his wife, Judy, and two daughters how to drive, and how they would sometimes drive him to and from work.

After a while, he noticed she would miss a turn or go the wrong way, and he thought it might have been because she was unsure of herself.

Judy was eventually diagnosed with dementia, and while she preferred to let her husband drive, the pair tried sharing driving responsibilities for a while.

“As [Judy’s] dementia progressed, when I couldn’t drive, I would have to give her directions,” Wayne says. “At time, she would have to drive, but she started driving more erratically, closer to other vehicles, parked cars, and was late to stop for red lights.”

Hykaway says his wife became more upset after each incident, and he wouldn’t let her travel alone.

After speaking with their family doctor, everyone agreed she shouldn’t drive any more.

Hykaway says the research being done by Bayat is valuable and important for everyone involved in a situation like the one his family faced.

“It is extremely important for the safety of everyone,” he says. “Any help, advice, suggestions, and resources will be very important for caregivers and their families in dealing with the denial, responsibility and emotional trauma incurred by all.”

Driving down new avenues

Bayat says this project will open new doors to learning more about actual driving patterns of dementia patients and how those patterns change with the condition’s progression.

She says she believes closing some of the gaps in driving assessments will not only represent a low-cost impact to the health-care system, but the technology is also small and easy to use for the public.

The study is in lock-step with the work being done at Bayat’s Healthy City Lab, which aims to investigate the relationship between human behaviour and health using mobile devices and artificial intelligence, particularly in the context of an aging population.

“With the increasing use of mobile technology and digital data in cities, new opportunities to study this relationship are emerging,” Bayat says. “Our team’s goal is to develop a framework for ‘ubiquitous health’ that can be used to create intelligent and sustainable solutions to support older adults and those with dementia in everyday settings.”

Sayeh Bayat is an assistant professor in the departments of Biomedical Engineering and Geomatics Engineering at the Schulich School of Engineering. She is also a member of the Hotchkiss Brain Institute and O’Brien Institute for Public Health at the Cumming School of Medicine.

The Schulich School of Engineering has launched its new strategic plan, Schulich Momentum: Enhancing Community, Expanding Impact. The plan includes four pillars, including Elevating Research and Innovation Impact. Research and innovation within Schulich has tremendous impact in our community. We are developing disciplinary and transdisciplinary leading-edge tools, knowledge, solutions and technologies to address challenges from the nanoscale to the global scale and beyond.

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