Learning how to use technology can help people with dementia recall memories, follow leisure activities, communicate with family and friends, record lucidity and manage day-to-day life. It can also help their carers access key information and instant support.
These findings come from tech-for-good charity Tinder Foundation, on the back of a three year programme with NHS England which aimed to widen digital participation in health – starting with those with least digital skills and greatest health needs.
People living with dementia were one of the audience groups where the introduction of technology proved particularly effective, and who realised the greatest impacts in terms of personal confidence and wellbeing.
An in-depth study followed five specialist UK online centres working with dementia patients and carers between January and April this year, to track the social, medical and digital barriers to learning, understand best practice and the features of successful delivery, as well as recording the health and wellbeing outcomes of using digital technology.
The report – Dementia and Digital; Using technology to improve health and wellbeing for people with dementia and their carers – highlights touchscreen technology and the use of stripped back, simple interfaces as successful ways to help people with memory problems get to grips with technology. Multi-sensory approaches – using familiar smells and visual prompts from the learner’s past – also helped with the retention of information and processes.
Online games and puzzles were some of the most popular activities for people with dementia, helping people keep their minds active and improving their confidence. Tools like Skype helped others to keep in touch with family and friends, while Youtube was used for reminiscence – allowing people to follow hobbies and connect with past places and people that meant something to them. Even those in the advanced stages of dementia benefited from the sessions and remembered the tablets as a source of enjoyment.
The report comes out just before the UK’s National Dementia Carer’s Day on Sunday, and also tracked how carers of people with dementia interacted with technology. For many, the internet became something of a lifeline, connecting them to others, helping them achieve everyday tasks, reducing isolation and providing much-needed respite.
Carers were more likely than patients to look up information on dementia, and some 52% used the internet to access support groups. Notably, 82% of carers and people with dementia reported improved relationships with healthcare professionals – with their increased knowledge meaning they could take a more active part in discussions.
Despite having access to an internet connection, both carers and people with dementia needed additional support to make a change to their routine and learn new skills. Some had physical barriers which needed to be overcome, and others were simply resistant to technology. Working with carers and families to challenge those attitudes and demonstrate the benefits was key in engagement.
Helen Milner, Chief Executive at Tinder Foundation, said: “For people with dementia, learning new skills is too often seen as impossible, impractical or even inadvisable. Our research shows the opposite. Not only can people with dementia learn about the internet, it can empower them to stay active, engaged, and involved in their own care. What’s more, for carers, the internet can be a both a refuge and a great resource for advice and support.
“We believe there is a role for technology in dementia care, and by embedding it in service delivery and support we can help people live better with their symptoms.”
That view has been echoed by healthcare professionals who have been part of the project. Christine Roworth-Gaunt is a Senior Occupational therapist for Leeds Memory Services, working as part of the Dementia Team. She worked with UK online centre mHabitat to deliver outreach sessions in Digital Cafes and people’s homes.
She adds: “I promote independence at home, so anything that facilitates that is part of my job. It’s about bringing digital technology out into the community and working with people with memory loss. It’s about them still being in charge of their lives. It’s about building for the future and making sure our patients are healthy, safe and, most importantly, happy. Digital can enhance practices and enhance what you’re able to offer people. If you can bring them something that can enrich their lives and provide quality, that’s brilliant.”
Godfrey, 68, describes having Alzheimer’s Disease as like ‘living life in slow motion’. He was depressed after his diagnosis, and shut himself away. One day, local UK online centre Age UK South Tyneside visited his care home, and were showing some YouTube videos of Frank Sinatra. He went over to see what was happening.
Gradually Godfrey learned how to use a tablet. He needed a lot of help – a few simple icons to press for each activity he wanted to do – and different smells to help him recall the processes for each one. Now he can Skype his family, look look up his favourite musicians, and find new music. He’s ordering his prescriptions online and he’s found out more about Alzheimer’s disease – so he feels more in control. He’s also joined some specialist groups so he’s getting out and about more.
He says: “I think I’m now using my brain more and using the computer has let me start doing more exercise, which helps me. When I want to talk to someone or if I’m feeling sorry for myself I know I can click on one button and I can talk to my son, I can click on another and talk to my daughter – another lets me talk to my grandson in Australia. It’s great!
“My family say it lets them keep an eye on me – I think being able to see me and talk to me means they don’t have to worry. I like to be able to do things for myself. I would say that everyone should learn to get online. You don’t realise what you can do until you try it out and it has really helped me stop feeling sorry for myself, snap out of my depression and start looking forward to things again.”
A full copy of the report can be found on the Tinder Foundation website. The organisation now plans to take the findings and develop online and offline resources to support future delivery, and to work with dementia organisations and the NHS to promote the role digital can play in dementia care and support.