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Why digital inclusion is important for care home residents

By: Shirley Ayres
On: 14th May 2013

There are 7.4 million people in the UK who have never used the internet of which 5.2million are aged over  65. There are over 18,000 care homes in England with nearly 40,000 older residents. We do not currently have an accurate figure about how many care home residents have access to the internet.

Access to the internet and digital technology innovations are fundamentally changing the way people connect, and how they engage with and access information and support. If I was looking for a care home I would certainly want to know about internet access, how residents are being supported to use the internet and whether technology is enhancing the lives of their residents.  

A good quality of life in older age means having a sense of purpose and full inclusion within the community with strong social contacts and mental stimulation. This does not stop when people move into residential care.

So many older people in care homes do not live close to their families. Adopting technology is an obvious solution to provide a “window on the world”. Social isolation is a significant issue for older people and it is easy to see the connection between the ‘social’ in social networks and the potential to combat loneliness.

Digital Unite research has shown that of people over 55 who are using the internet, four out of five (86%) said it had improved their lives, 72% said being online had helped reduce their feelings of isolation and 81% said using the internet makes them feel part of modern society

I accept that there are considerable variations in care homes in terms of their culture, ethos, ownership and the people who live in them. However the internet is a powerful communications tool and I believe that care homes have an important role to play in addressing the digital divide for older people.

For many people, staff as well as residents, the biggest barriers to using digital technology are a lack of knowledge and confidence in knowing how to use the internet. There are a number of excellent free guides provided by organisations such as Digital Unite and BBC WebWise.

If residents have wifi access in their room they can read the news, find out what is happening in their local community and across the world. Skype and Facepalm enables residents to keep in contact with family and friends at minimal cost. It is also useful for people who use sign language to communicate through a video call. Personal interests can be maintained and new friendships made through a wide range of online communities

Gransnet Local provides grandparents with a place to share local information and events, discuss local issues and connect both online and offline.

The Social Care Institute for Excellence (SCIE) surveys of Get Connected Grant Recipients (2011)  gives examples of the ways in which technology is being used to improve the quality of life for residents in care and nursing homes. It also highlights the benefits for staff of having access to online training and information.

“ Residents reported being able to look at websites to do with their interests and hobbies, use internet shopping sites and communicate with family members, often overseas. Some had already noted beneficial impact on their carer’s ability to help manage their condition.”

Shared Walk enables family and friends to stay in touch through sharing access to photographs and short videos of their daily lives. The internet and smartphone service is helping housebound individuals to explore the outside world with a friend, relative, carer, or volunteer.

Life story work is increasingly recognised as an important part of person-centred dementia care. It can improve  relationships with staff, family and carers and  provide a record of experiences, likes and dislikes a useful record when an older person is moving between different environments such as respite, day or residential care.

With families often widely dispersed care home residents may have little or no contact. The Memories Matters project from Alive uses iPads to reconnect older people with their hobbies, experiences, interests and memories using the internet and a variety of apps.

TalkingMats is a visual communication framework which can help people with communication difficulties to think about an issue and express their views. 

With an increasing number of councillors and MP’s using social media and council meetings being live streamed the opportunities for care home residents to be more involved in the democratic process is immense. Unlock Democracy are exploring if digital technology can help generate more political interest through an online quiz Vote Match to inspire greater engagement. This could be extended to care homes.

NHS England are funding the UK online centres network to support people to gain digital skills so that they can use digital services to improve their health. They will also work directly with health professionals to create more UK online centres in clinics, GP surgeries or hospitals. I hope they will also be working within care homes.

Care home staff could be using technology much more creatively such as Skype consultations with doctors to avoid trips to hospitals. It is worth watching the video exploring the Australian pilot which linked a care home with a GP and geriatrician for video consultations.  There are now health apps available to measure everything from blood pressure to cholesterol levels and the results could be sent directly via the internet to the GP.

SCIE have published a guide to using computers and CT to support people with dementia with excellent case studies highlighting how technology can be used for meaningful activities.

Technology has opened up new ways of connecting and providing intellectual stimulation for everyone, regardless of their interests and capabilities Maybe it is time to encourage the Care Quality Commission to strengthen the inspection standards to include access to the internet and effective mental stimulation as a basic requirement of residential care?

The technology and social networks which will enhance the lives of care home residents are available now. How is your care home responding?