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How digital technology is supporting people living with dementia

By: Shirley Ayres
On: 15th October 2013

I have had many conversations in the past few months about how access to the internet and digital technology is supporting people living with dementia to enjoy an enhanced quality of life. People living with dementia suffer from a variety of conditions ranging from social isolation and depression to behavioural changes and memory loss. For family and friends there are the additional emotional traumas of being with a person who may not recognise them or remember their shared life. It is encouraging to note the increasing number of local, UK wide and international online support networks providing support and advice for people living with dementia and their carers.

Whilst email, online shopping, banking, paying bills, using search engines and connecting through social networks are commonplace technology is not really making an impact across the care sector. I feel we need to explore why technology is not part of mainstream care and support. There seem to be a number of challenges here. How can we ensure that commissioners, people living with dementia their families and carers are aware of digital innovations? An excellent starting point in the Nesta Living Map of Aging Innovators a quick guide to some of the most exciting things happening in the world of ageing.

Pilot projects are demonstrating how technology can impact on the challenges of isolation and loneliness but we need to reassure people that technology will not isolate them further from their community connections. At the moment the evidence for the widespread adoption of technology in care is limited. Whilst this should not stop new innovations being funded small scale pilots are not providing the substantial numbers using technology in care required to build the evidence base.

The increasing use of tablets which are much more intuitive to use than conventional computers avoid the complexity of a keyboard, mouse and operating system which may deter older people from using technology. Tablets give people living with dementia the opportunity to remain connected with family and friends and develop their creativity. Tablets can be used for a whole range of activities such as accessing the internet, talking to family and friends online, using apps to paint pictures and create music using simple touch controls.
There are now many apps, tools and resources that are well suited to supporting those receiving care and carers. Some are designed specifically for this purpose. For example the Virtual Care Home is an online resource that demonstrates dementia-friendly design in care home settings or people's own homes. The layouts of seven individual rooms are modelled with information revealed interactively on how the features can make a difference for people living with dementia.

Digital reminiscence therapy gives a new dynamic to traditional methods of reminiscence which provide prompts, such as photos, music or familiar items to encourage people to talk about their memories and stimulate conversation. There is considerable evidence to support the benefits of reminiscence for older people, not just those living with dementia. Research shows that using reminiscence therapy also creates a stronger bond between carers and residents within a care home setting. Caregivers report a reduction in stress and improved knowledge of their loved ones whilst helping them to relive family moments and events.

Sporting Memories Network promotes and develops memories of sport with older fans to improve well being through conversation and reminiscence. Sports reminiscence provides the opportunity to document a person’s favourite sports events, teams and moments. Sporting memories provides an alternative focus for men who are reluctant to join in other group and reminiscence based activities. Sporting Memories are supported by an impressive range of star supporters from such diverse worlds as motor racing, football and cricket. Sporting Memories Network set an ambitious target on World Alzheimer's Day  to share Bill's Story which eventually reached 12,500,000 people through the power of social media.

The Memory Box Network is creating a free to use social media based platform that enables people to easily upload and share memorable materials that are  tailored for the person with dementia and help them remember past times which can stimulate their more recent memories and their cognitive abilities. Technology is being used to access to millions of online resources  which include video clips, audio recordings of either spoken word or music, photographs, news clippings, letters and stories.

However, there are also a number of other tools that can have a role in care. These tools have been designed for entertainment or relaxation, but can be used to support relatively traditional care practices.  One of the best things about apps is that they can play a part in bringing back activities which participants have missed from their lives.

For example, reminiscing about gardening or developing a shared garden are common practices in many care homes.  Flower garden is a digital extension of this activity, which allows the user to plant seeds, care for the plants, watch the flowers bloom, and create bouquets to share with friends and family. This is especially significant for participants who used to enjoy growing plants and are missing their former gardens. Whilst this isn’t an established care activity, it does bring a digital dimension to an evidenced and widespread practice.  Developing familiarity with a virtual flower garden may also lead to greater confidence to try out some of the tools designed specifically to support those in care.
Arts4Dementia provide a useful guide to memory apps and aids to stimulate and provide support. Apps include The Brain Jog a free app for iPhone, iPad, or iPod. It was developed by researchers at Queen’s University Belfast as part of a larger study looking at ‘brain training’ and the ability to prevent cognitive decline and dementia. The app is designed for people 50 years of age and older.

Dementia Challengers was established by carers to help people access information and advice about dementia. The website provides useful signposts to guide carers to online resources including a section on technology. The Draw Something Free app a popular social drawing and guessing game is recommended.

The following iPad app recommendations and commentary has been provided by Alive, Memory Apps for Dementia and My Ageing Parent.

iFish Pond app is great for residents who enjoyed fishing in their earlier years while being a nice all-round sensory experience for any individual. With the volume turned on, realistic water sounds are created every time the screen is touched. You can also use a virtual fishing rod to ‘go fishing’ by touching the screen. If you get a bite, drag your finger across the screen in a circular motion to ‘reel in’ your catch.

Midnite HD a free app worth a look. Touch the screen with one finger to create sparks, touch with a second finger to get the sparks to swirl around your fingers in a circle, touch with a third or fourth finger to free the sparks.  You can then drag your fingers to rotate the image through 360 degrees, a great effect.

Let’s Create! Pottery With this app, you can touch the screen to make pottery by throwing clay on a virtual wheel. You can smooth the sides of the pots by dragging your finger across the screen and create a collection of pots of different shapes and sizes. This app creates a relaxing, therapeutic experience for individuals with dementia, particularly those who have creative interests.

Augment is an app which builds a 3D object, animal or person and, using the iPad camera, puts it in the room so that if you look at the screen (or the projector screen if the iPad is plugged in to it), you see everything just as it was before but there is a new object in the room. It also locks it to a particular position so even if you move the iPad, it still seems to be there. Using what they know about the participants, Alive! presenters can choose objects which would be most appropriate for the session. For example, in one session Bob*, a former pig farmer, was amazed to see an image of a pig which looked exactly as though it was there in the room with him!

The Nominet Trust is currently creating a list of the 100 most inspiring applications of digital technology for social good which will showcase the world's most inspiring social innovations. Definitely worth a look!

Digital technologies provide opportunities to reach out and support people in more exciting and radical ways. Just imagine if every care home was wifi enabled and used the power and potential of digital technology and social networks to develop new models of care for older people!

Let us not forget the inspiring words of Professor Stephen Hawking “Technology is a vital part of human existence. They show us that the right tools in the right hands can help everyone, regardless of our frailties, to achieve our true potential and advance as a civilisation.”

This is a very brief overview of apps and tools available.  Please feel free to recommend additional digital resources that you have found helpful in supporting people living with dementia and their carers.