Keith Spink’s father, Derek, is supported in his home with the help of simple, affordable technology
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How technology can lead a quiet revolution in dementia care

Image credit: Keith Spink and his father Derek

Sharing knowledge and experiences can encourage the use of technology to support the increasing number of people living with dementia.

Who doesn’t shake their head when they see a couple out for a drink, both glued to their phones? It’s just one example of how we often bemoan the havoc that technology plays with human connection and communication. So why is the Social Care Institute for Excellence, a charity that works to improve the lives of people who use care services by helping them share knowledge about ‘what works’, making the case for the use of technology in the care of the estimated 850,000 people in the UK who currently live with dementia?

That’s what we’re doing with a new web resource, ‘Using Technology to Support People with Dementia’. We believe that used sensitively and thoughtfully, technology can enhance rather than replace human relationships. It can help carers, both paid and unpaid, to provide high-quality care, even in care homes where the frailest of those with dementia may need to live when family and friends can no longer manage.

As well as looking at how technology provides access to a wealth of information and advice – something that people with an early diagnosis of dementia say they need more of – the resource explores how IT can help people stay in touch with friends: a bonus for someone struggling to cope with the emotional impact of their condition. It also explains how technology can provide entertainment for people who may find the outside world strange and frightening. Favourite music and songs, films and photos, images from fashion and film – all these familiar cultural references from the distant past bring meaning to someone whose internal world is proving unreliable.

In one of the web resource’s eight sections, my colleague Keith Spink stars in a number of films showing how he uses simple, affordable gadgets to supplement the care he provides for his dad, Derek. Thanks to technology, Keith is able to care for his father and continue working. Scouring the internet and often choosing devices designed with other audiences in mind, he has set up cameras, monitors and systems that let him monitor his dad’s home remotely. His dad knows and accepts the presence of devices.

Keith can see and speak to his dad if he becomes unsettled, monitor his temperature, confirm that he’s taken his medication, see that he’s eaten lunch from the fridge and track what food needs purchasing. Without technology, none of this would be possible.

This practical advice, provided on the SCIE website with videos that demonstrate how the devices are used, doesn’t endorse particular products; it simply provides useful ideas to consider.

Over the past ten years, there’s been a quiet revolution in dementia care, much of it driven by people who have been brave enough to speak up and demand a better deal. The more carers know about the person with dementia – what food they like, what drink they don’t, what football team they support, who and what they loved – the better equipped they are to give what the jargon terms ‘person-centred’ care. Access to technology helps build what’s called a ‘life story’ picture that can be shared with everyone who supports the person living with dementia.

There’s a steady stream of stories in the media about various robots being trialled to replace traditional carers. The jury is out on how practical, affordable and acceptable it will be to replace the human touch with that of a machine. But there are undoubtedly routine tasks and reminder functions that devices can do as well as a human, leaving carers free to undertake more sensitive interactions. If an avatar is accepted by the person with dementia which can stack the dishwasher, wash the floor and remind them to take a tablet at lunchtime, is that not worth considering? However, the main tasks of caring have to be done with a real, caring human. Technology is just a useful tool.

Our hope is that we can stimulate interest in the contribution that technology can make to dementia care. Working with carers and befrienders of people with dementia, we’ve designed the new resource to make it easy-to-navigate and rich with practical ideas.

In an ageing population, dementia is a condition that will probably touch us all, whether it’s via a family member, friend, colleague or even ourselves. Hopefully, this new resource will make a positive contribution to an uncertain future. 

Pamela Holmes is a practice development manager with the Social Care Institute for Excellence. ‘Using Technology to Support People with Dementia’ is at www.scie.org.uk/dementia/support/technology

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