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By Dr Tom Christie

October 9th, 2014

WEAVING DREAMS AND SPINNING TALES: Inside the Alzheimer’s Story Starters App

‘The destiny of the world,’ Harold Clarke Goddard once wrote, ‘is determined less by the battles that are lost and won than by the stories it loves and believes in’.  And the art of storytelling is at the very heart of Alzheimer’s Story Starters, a new app which has recently been launched for Apple iOS and Android mobile devices.

The brainchild of Dr Paul Skiera, Director of Arizona State University’s Technology-Based Learning and Research Centre, this app has been designed to stimulate conversation and reminiscence in people who are affected by dementia.  The eponymous ‘story starter’ can be a family member, carer, friend, or any acquaintance who is seeking to engage in verbal interaction with someone who has dementia; because the app can be easily installed to a smartphone as well as a tablet or iPhone, its use in a variety of situations and locations is possible.

The Alzheimer’s Story Starters app contains a variety of options for audio-visual stimuli, including songs and photos, all of which are intended to encourage meaningful dialogue.  The ‘story starter’ kicks off the story session by reacting to a suggested topic, then building upon it with a narrative of their own devising.  In this way, they can give confidence to a person with dementia through supporting them in responding to the topic according to their own preference.  Subject matter is chosen with a person-centred approach in mind, ensuring that issues are discussed which the person affected by dementia will find appealing, familiar and motivating.

As its name suggests, the app has been developed to act as a launch-pad for conversation, encouraging the forging of personal connections between users of the program.  The emphasis is very much placed upon stimulating narratives which are expressive and engaging, providing user support where necessary but generally leaving the process open to interpretation and improvisation.  There are even useful prompts for visitors, such as chaplains or neighbours, to enable them to get the most out of storytelling sessions with someone who has dementia - especially if the guest is less familiar with the process.

It is sometimes said that the simplest ideas are often among the best, and certainly ideas-generation programs similar to this one have been used by writers for many years in order to kick-start the creative process.  But Skiera - a long-time pioneer of therapeutic apps - is not simply content to take this established idea and reconfigure it for use by people who have dementia.  Rather, the whole process has been carefully engineered from the ground up, conscientiously taking into account the requirements both of the person affected by dementia and the ‘story starter’ themselves.  Skiera demonstrates an acute awareness that different people react in different ways to particular stimuli, enabling the app to provide a rounded user experience which takes into account individual needs in constructive ways which broaden its scope for inspiring good stories.

At a time when more and more people are discovering the benefits of mobile applications, Alzheimer’s Story Starters is already building a healthy buzz amongst users.  Skiera’s program may well be easy to use, but the simplicity of its interface belies a wealth of functionality which is actively spurring on new and advantageous interactions between people with dementia and those who live and work with them.  However, the app is to be particularly commended for the way in which it provides such a thoughtfully balanced approach to its user base: with great insight on the part of its designer, equal consideration is given to supporting the storyteller and providing encouragement to the person affected by dementia, ensuring that the construction of evocative narrative is encouraged in a way which is both considerate and insightful.  It seems ironic, in a way, that the latest technology is being used to encourage the telling of good stories - one of the oldest of all human skills.  The fact that it does so in a manner which is as intuitive as it is compelling therefore means that Skiera’s efforts in this area are to be applauded.