Improving care for dementia sufferers through new technology

Newsletter articles

1 Sep 2012

Employment Studies Issue 16

Ben Hicks

Demographic change, which is increasing the proportion of older people in our society, will be hugely challenging in terms of ensuring that the right level of care is in place for higher numbers of older people, and particularly those with specific care needs such as people suffering from dementia. One way in which dementia sufferers can engage with the world around them is through the use of new technology, and this is now being explored, supported by the development of new guidance.

Providing carers with the right guidance

IES had previously carried out work for the Social Care Institute for Excellence (SCIE), looking at the use of online technologies in residential care and domiciliary and community care provision. This revealed that many care service providers working with people with dementia were keen to use online technologies to improve the service they provided for these clients, but often had difficulty in finding guidance to help them. SCIE responded to this gap by commissioning IES to undertake research into the ways in which online technologies are being used to improve the lives of people with dementia.

We wanted to base our research on examples of good practice, and therefore carried out a review of relevant literature. Unsurprisingly, as this area is still in its infancy, there was relatively little useful information to be found. Most of the information collated to date has come from interviews with academics and professionals working in the area. However, we were able to find a number of good practice examples and to devise a framework for guidance for carers.

Using new technology: key issues

One of our most important findings was that the carer is central to successful engagement with new technology. The carer needs to feel confident in using the technology themselves before they try to support and encourage people with dementia to use it. The guidance will therefore highlight good practice points for carers to consider when supporting clients in trying out software. The main point to emphasise is that technology is best used in the context of 'everyday devices' to support activities rather than being the central focus, with the interests of the client guiding that use and the carer acting as the enabler.

While there is specialist software available for people with dementia, sensitive use of existing, widely available and often free 'apps' and programmes provides a range of entertainment and communication options. Some examples of current uses include:

  • Using Powerpoint to produce life histories. People with dementia appreciate the opportunity to compile a record of their life as it helps them recall their past as their illness progresses. While life histories can be produced using paper-based media, the range of graphics available on this software help to enhance the life story and present a fuller picture of the person with dementia, including their past, present and future aspirations. Personal photographs can be uploaded and animation, voice-overs and sound/music bring colour and life to the history.
  • Using software such as Photoshop to help people with dementia with their hobbies and/or creating items such as cards or calendars. People can use the internet to find pictures of their favourite foods and download recipes to make them.
  • Accessing entertainment. Sites such as YouTube are invaluable when retrieving videos of old advertisements, programmes and music to help people with dementia recall earlier stages of their lives. Clients enjoy using Google Street View to find the areas in which they once lived, worked or got married.
  • Increasing communication options. Email and blogs can be useful to people who otherwise have difficulties in communicating. People with dementia can use email to stay in touch with their local community and participate more in society. Skype, videophone and email can also help individuals to keep in touch with their family and friends. These media can be of particular help to people with additional disabilities such as deafness, who can sign when using Skype/videophones. These technologies can also improve communication between generations, as younger people are often keen to demonstrate the functions of these gadgets to their older relatives.

It is also important to select the right type of technology to use for the chosen activity. Touch screens appear to be more intuitive to comprehend and use for people with dementia. However, they can be harder to type on and some current formats are too heavy for older people to use. Functions available in devices such as the Kindle are particularly useful: for example, being able to alter the font size, brighten or darken the screen and to set it to re-open at the same page as when it was turned off are all helpful functions for people with dementia.

The future

As technology advances, it is likely that continuing benefits for people with dementia will be seen. Anecdotal evidence suggests people with dementia can enjoy real improvements in well-being and social inclusion when they use new and online technology.

The findings of the IES research will be used as the basis for a guide for the care sector, which will be written by Sara Dunn Associates. It is intended that this guide will serve to encourage more care organisations and staff to engage with new technology and activities related to this. The final version of the guide will be available in late autumn 2012.

For more information on this work, please contact Linda Miller at IES.