Dementia is one of the most prominent challenges our society faces today. Indicative of the sheer scale of this challenge, dementia cost the UK economy £23 billion in 2008 – greater than the cost of cancer and heart disease combined. According to the International Longevity Centre’s Ageing, Longevity and Demographic Change publication, this equates to an average cost of dementia care of £24,647 per person, per annum, which is more than the average salary in the UK.

The proportion of elderly people in our society is growing at an unprecedented rate and with life expectancy also increasing, more and more people are likely to also be affected. According to the Alzheimer’s Society, there are currently about 800,000 people in the UK with dementia. Alarmingly, it is predicted that by 2021, the number of people with dementia in the UK will have increased to around 1 million. As the number of dementia sufferers rises, an adequately skilled and trained workforce will be required to ensure that complex, dynamic care and support services are delivered, thus placing further pressure on social care providers.

One of the key responses to this emerging challenge has been the development of assistive technologies, designed to support people with dementia to live independently and safely for longer, as well as reducing the pressure on their carers.

What is assistive technology?

Assistive technology is a broad term used to describe any item, object, device or system that enables a person to perform a task that they would otherwise be unable to do, or increase the ease and safety by which certain tasks can be performed.

Put simply, assistive technology is any aid that can assist the most frail and vulnerable members of our society to live safely and live well at home or in a care home environment.

How can assistive technology help dementia sufferers?

The role of assistive technology and how it can be used to support someone living with dementia varies greatly. Assistive technology ranges from simple, standalone devices right through to complex, integrated systems that help a person to remain independent for as long as possible.

Some of the areas where assistive technology may help include everyday living, monitoring, safety, communication, as well as prompts and reminders.

Safety

Assistive technology for people with dementia is primarily designed to support security and safety, while providing a less intrusive living environment. For example, in a care home setting, motion sensor technology can be used to silently alert staff when those residents with a high risk of falling move away from their chair or bed, in order to reduce the likelihood of falls and injuries. While in a person’s home, safeguarding technology can be used to protect against flooding, fires, intruders, the safe use of domestic appliances, and summoning help in an emergency situation.

Everyday living

Assistive technology can also be employed to assist with a person’s daily needs. These gadgets may include temperature sensors for automatic climate control, lamp and light activation, automated ovens, dishwashers and washing machines, automatic window and curtain controls, floor cleaning robots, garden sensors for automated watering, and electronic showers, taps and toilets.

Point-of-care technologies also enable remote monitoring of a person’s daily health condition such as blood sugar, blood pressure and heart rate. This data can be automatically transmitted to the appropriate health professional, who can monitor vital signs and make appropriate decisions about necessary interventions.

Monitoring

In instances where a person with dementia is prone to wandering and disorientation, assistive technology such as virtual door and exit sensors that detect entry and exit can be implemented to alert family members, loved ones and carers, while GPS tracking devices can securely monitor the person’s exact location to within metres.

Communication

Assistive technology that simplifies communication enables carers to be on-hand and assist when necessary, instead of providing round-the-clock, one-on-one supervision. As an example, video conferencing is now being used to facilitate communication with health professionals and service providers, which is particularly important where an elderly person may reside at a significant distance from the health clinic. In this context, assistive technology has the potential to relieve the pressure on carers and support their efforts in delivering care in a way that supports the independence of the resident or service user.

But online communication can also help to address social isolation, which the World Health Organisation has identified as the single biggest ‘killer’ of older people and improve their health and wellbeing.

An example of this includes enabling older people to communicate with friends and relatives or participate in major family events via networked computers with internet capabilities. Access to internet applications, and online browsing, research, learning and games can also help broaden a person’s interests.

Prompts and reminders

The span of assistive technology also incorporates personal solutions that can positively impact confidence, health and wellbeing. Examples of these include automatic medication dispensers that help dementia sufferers to maintain medication compliance, while orientation clocks can help with confusion about the time, day of the week, month or year, and locator devices help to find lost items of property.

Benefits of assistive technology

It’s important to note that assistive technology is not about the technology. Instead, it is about enhancing a person’s quality of life through improved outcomes in safeguarding, living standards, social interaction and greater independence.

According to the Social Care for Excellence’s Assistive Technology for Older People research briefing, some of the key benefits of assistive technology include:

  • increased choice, safety, independence and sense of control
  • improved quality of life
  • maintenance of ability to remain at home
  • reduced burden placed on carers
  • improved support for people with long-term health conditions
  • reduced accidents and falls in the home

A few concerns and considerations

One of the most common concerns about assistive technology is based around ethical issues – particularly devices that are used for monitoring safety, and how that may negatively impact the privacy or freedom of a person with dementia. Another common concern is that assistive technology may make life more complicated or extend beyond the abilities of the person with dementia. There is also the fear that these technologies may be used to reduce human contact and the services provided by carers. However, we firmly believe that as with all technology, assistive technology can be effective only when combined with high quality, consistent care and support.

When considering the use of technology to help with dementia care, the personal needs and choices of the individual are critical. It is no use trying to mould an individual to fit in with a certain technology. The proposed technology must be able to support and suit the individual and their unique situation.

Keep in mind that individuals will react differently to the various types of assistive technology. For example, one person might find it helpful to have a recorded message that prompts them to remember their keys or turn off the stove after use. But another person might find this confusing and intrusive. Therefore, prior to the implementation of any new technology, start by asking the following two questions:

1. Can the technology enable the person, carer or their family to do something that would not be possible without it?

2. Can the technology complement the care and support already being provided by carers in certain situations?

If the answer is ‘yes’, it is likely the proposed assistive technology would have a positive impact on the quality of a person’s life. For more information on assistive technologies that can help people with dementia live more independently, visit the AT Dementia website.

We would like to know how you have seen assistive technology make a positive impact on the lives of dementia sufferers, whether in the home or in a care home setting. Please share your thoughts below.

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