Ageing society

Recalling the past: academics stimulate Hong Kong elderly with novel television idea

Researchers try out nostalgic clips like old songs and buildings on residents of centre for the elderly

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 02 August, 2017, 4:31pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 02 August, 2017, 4:31pm

In a tiny room at Sai Cho Wan Lutheran Centre for the Elderly in Lam Tin, a group of residents gather around an old television set blaring out 1960s Chinese music.

“No. No, that’s not [actress Liza] Wang Ming-chuen. It wasn’t her time yet,” one of the octogenarians points out smugly as a black and white clip of a celebrity pops up on the screen.

A grainy photo of the old HSBC headquarters in Central, torn down in 1978, comes next. The old lady beside her is thrilled – the building was just how she remembered it.

MemoTV is the brainchild of 21-year-old University of Science and Technology mechanical engineering student Urvil Sheth and his multidisciplinary team as part of a project for an annual 10-week summer course on “design thinking” being held in collaboration with the Hangzhou-based China Academy of Art. This year’s theme is the elderly.

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The team, comprising art, science and engineering students, are tasked with coming up with an idea of how to communicate something when “language won’t do it”. They then have four weeks to design a product prototype and market it.

Sheth’s team includes three other students with majors in computer science, visual art and intermedia art. “The idea was the result of several iterations of our brainstorming,” he said.

“There is a lot of smart technology for the elderly out there but we are looking at how we can provide entertainment ... enhancing quality of life,” said Professor Ravindra Goonetilleke of the university’s industrial engineering and logistics management department, who teaches the course.

Though by no means state-of-the-art technology – a simple PC computer is built into a shell of a four-decade-old TV set complete with dials and knobs – the message, according to Goonetilleke, does the trick.

The designers programmed photos of old Hong Kong, news clips and vintage product ads.

“Dementia is a serious issue [among the elderly]. But the beauty is that although they can’t remember things in the short-term, they can still remember things from long ago very well,” Goonetilleke said. “That’s basically why these students came up with the product. It can relate to what happened in their era.”

Any variety of “nostalgic” pictures, music and video could be programmed into the TV set via a USB port, which when viewed could help stimulate and “trigger neuron connections”, he said.

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Dr Ivan Mak Wing-chit , a specialist in psychiatry, said reminiscence therapy was commonly used for elderly dementia patients.

Applied in a social setting such as a centre for the elderly, Mak said there could be some therapeutic effect in a group of elderly people sitting together and reminiscing about the past.

But he said there was less evidence that it could help treat dementia as opposed to stimulating other activities such as exercise and learning new things.

“It could be beneficial to socialising behaviour or social stimulation,” said Mak. “At the moment, there isn’t a lot of conclusive evidence proving its effectiveness in improving [a person’s cognitive] condition and behaviour.”