Dementia Centred

By Grant Gibson

February 8th, 2016

Can technology improve care for people with dementia?

As Dementia grows in concern, technology is increasingly being viewed as part of the answer to the question of how we can provide better care for people with dementia.

Traditionally the development of technologies within dementia care has focused on devices that have largely been used ‘on’ people with dementia, such as the wide range of community alarm and telecare systems, or GPS technologies to locate people with dementia who ‘wander’.  Yet the potential of technology to assist people with dementia goes far beyond simply using technology to observe and monitor people with dementia.  Much has been written about the range of technologies currently available for people with dementia, but in this blog I discuss some of the emerging trends in technologies and dementia, and how these new technologies, if they are to be used most effectively with people with dementia, will require a shift in attitudes towards how technologies are used within health and social care.

Dementia Friendly apps

The growth of smartphones and tablets, alongside the range of apps available on these devices provides major opportunities for dementia care.  From promoting a range of activities for people with dementia, through monitoring a person’s location via an easily carried device, or allowing people to rate places which they find particularly dementia friendly, apps have been identified as areas for growth with people with dementia.  Examples of such apps include the app ‘care and connect; dementia friendly communities’. Developed by researchers at Newcastle University, the app allows people with dementia and their carers to rate places according to their ‘dementia friendliness’, based on criteria such as interaction with staff and inclusivity of design.  Such ratings can be easily shared via the app.  A similar app is in development by researchers at the University of Wollongong in Australia called ‘connecting dementia friendly places’.  Memory and reminiscence apps such as ‘My House of Memories’ or ‘Replay sporting memories’ can promote reminiscence, for example by providing users with a series of objects, or reflections on particular sporting events, which can then promote discussion and interaction with a person with dementia.  The next challenge for these apps appears to be their potential to ‘go viral’, namely making sure they break through from small scale projects to becoming something known across all the people and groups across dementia care.  How we can achieve this is however open to question.

Everyday technologies

When discussing the role technologies can play in supporting people with dementia, most of the focus has fallen on assistive technology and ‘telecare’; devices made by specialist healthcare organisations to assist people with dementia, in the majority of cases delivered through health or social care agencies.  The best example of such technologies are the near ubiquitous community alarms provided by most UK local authorities, with most of these services also providing telecare.  However less focus has been paid to how a wide range of everyday devices can also help a person with dementia.    From simply using post it notes to label cupboards, using games such as jigsaws, or covering remote controls with masking tape to restrict the number of buttons a person can use, a range of adaptations to everyday technologies can be made which can help people with dementia.  Many of these simplified devices, or objects identified as being suitable for people with dementia can be purchased from high street stores or online.  Sites such as the Alzheimer’s Society and AT Dementia also provide information and advice on a range of assistive and everyday technologies which can be used to help people with dementia.

More ‘high tech’ devices such as ‘smart home’ or ‘internet of things’ technologies are also beginning to break through as commercially viable products, with a number of high profile ranges manufactured by major companies becoming increasingly available in high street stores (e.g. the Samsung Smartthings range). These technologies include video cameras with built in motion sensors, remotely controllable heating thermostats (such as Nest or Hive), programmable lighting or suites of motion, moisture and temperature sensors, all of which can be controlled and monitored via a smart phone app.  Most of these technologies are aimed at a technologically savvy market of young, early adopters rather than people with dementia or their carers, but have the scope to be used to help with care.  Indeed many of these devices replicate many ‘telecare’ technologies, but have the important distinction of being available to purchase from high streets or online, rather than through health or social care agencies. As a result, such technologies are becoming more common, and while not aimed at people with dementia and certainly more expensive than ‘telecare’, these devices certainly have the potential to assist families in providing care.

The role of the family

The increasing range of both assistive technologies specifically designed for dementia, alongside the range of everyday technologies which have the potential to help means that technologies can increasingly help families care for a person with dementia.  Family members, often playing the role of a carer, or simply supporting other family members to help look after a person therefore play a crucial role in determining how technologies may be used.  My own research has suggested that carers are frequently interested in using technology to help look after a carer, in many cases getting in touch with local agencies or indeed purchasing a range of devices themselves.  However our research also found that many carers struggled to find out what technologies were suitable, or how to use them in ways appropriate to the person they were looking after.  Few knew of any resources they could refer to, while few also spoke of health or social care professionals to give them advice, meaning in most cases they had to figure things out themselves, often making many mistakes, and wasting money in the process.

How can we support family members when using technology as part of care?

The growth of what could be called a ‘mixed economy’ of technology in dementia, in which devices provided by social care is provided alongside everyday technologies bought by family members, raises important questions about how people actually use technologies.  We are seeing a shift in focus, in which alongside working ‘on’ a person, technologies can be used ‘with’ a person with dementia and ‘by’ a person with dementia (Gibson et al 2014).  However if we are to support technology to be used with and by a person with dementia, then we need to change how we think about how technologies can be used.  If we recognise that when caring for their relatives, family members are likely to seek out and use technology, then greater thought needs to be given to how family members might be helped in making choices about what technologies are out there, how they may help and where they can get them.  Family members will know best what is likely to work for a person, but may need help finding out precisely what is out there, and what might help them.  Given the increasing range of technologies out there, when discussing technologies greater focus therefore needs to be paid to what’s out there now, and how we can support family carers when putting technology in place.

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