Assistive digital technology and older people: technology “bricolage” in dementia care

A key focus of social care teams today is helping people to grow old at home, safely, with dignity and with appropriate levels of care if needed, without breaking the budget. Increasingly, local authorities are looking to advances in technology to facilitate this “growing old in place”.

Telecare packages and assistive technologies are often the preferred way for care teams to deliver social care in a home setting. And in situations where care is required around the clock (for example, support for people with dementia and other life limiting degenerative diseases), families and carers are adapting everyday technology and integrating it into their care-giving in order to supplement the telecare provided by local authorities.

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Bricolage in dementia and elderly care

Bricolage means adapting an object to allow it to carry out a function which was not necessarily its original intended function. Relatives who care for loved ones with dementia, often adapt everyday objects to help them with their day-to-day caring. They find new, innovative and often non-conventional ways to use technology in diverse ways.

dementia post it

One example from dementia care was a man who bought a chicken ornament with a sensor which “crowed” whenever anyone walked past it. He placed it beside the front door so that if his wife, who suffered from dementia, walked up to the door to go out, he would hear and be able to go to her.

Other examples of technology being adapted include: setting alarms and reminders on mobile devices to remind people to take medication, or using webcams to act as personal CCTV so familly carers can monitor loved ones when they go out, or go into the next room.

These examples show that objects don’t have to be digital in order to be effective. The rise in capability of digital technologies and the relative decrease in cost, however, means it is often quicker and easier for families to invest in additional technologies themselves, rather than waiting for an assessment and an allocation of additional technology from their council.

Image by Buddi

Image by Buddi

Ethical challenges

Although there may be practical motivations, some charities have expressed concern about the ethics of some of the practices regarding adaptation of digital technology to form part of an assistive care package. While they recognise the strain of caring is significant for many people, rigging up a webcam in each room to allow you to “monitor” a loved one, or attaching a GPS tracking bracelet, for example, while often done with the best of intentions, could be interpreted as a breach of human rights.

Active assistive technology (technology which requires an active call for assistance) rather than passive technology (which is constantly monitoring) may be a better way of using technology ethically. It may also be used as an additional stimulant or interactive tool to allow patients to communicate. Apps and interactive devices, such as tablet computers, can inform a carer or loved one that someone had been using the app (providing a type of reassurance and monitoring) and the activities the app promotes might also be a visual stimulant and a communicative tool. The Dementia Citizens project has adopted this method and aims to help people with dementia and those who care for them, using apps on smartphones and tablets.

Dementia Citizens from Nesta UK on Vimeo.

Final thoughts

If we are mindful of the ethical challenges of integrating more technology into care, it might be possible for families and carers to work with social care and assistive technology development teams to adapt the tools available in a more empowering way. It might also mean that the onus is not on carers and their loved ones to build what they can from the standardised telecare provided by local authorities.

Bricolage in assistive care has, for many families, become the norm without them realising it. By adapting and supplementing assistive technology, like telecare packages, with non-assistive technologies or adapted additional digital technologies, families and carers can create a bespoke and personalised care package.

In future, understanding the extent to which families and carers adapt the technology given to them, could help creat more flexible care packages which can be more easily adapted to suit individual needs.

Telecare in the UK: lessons from Barcelona

By Rebecca Jackson

Telecare is technology to help people live independently, usually in their own homes, for longer. Usually delivered as part of a package of care, telecare devices can include things like: bed sensors, to detect if someone is out of bed at an unusual time; fall sensors; medication reminders; and alerts on screens or over loudspeakers. Such devices have led telecare to be heralded as a new dawn in patient-centred, independent living.  However, despite initiatives  to drive its application forward, not everyone in the UK is convinced about the benefits of telecare.

Practitioners and carers are sceptical about the potential of replacing traditional care with digital models to save money and the impact that this could have on standards of care. In addition, many patients themselves are uncertain about the use of telecare and digital health solutions, with many who have telecare systems within their homes choosing to continue to interact with primary and home care services in the same way as before. Much of the academic and expert-led research and evaluation of telecare programmes in the UK by organisations such as the Nuffield Trust and the Kings Fund has found little to no improvement in service, reduction in cost or reduction in workload for care teams in areas where telecare has been deployed.

While telecare in the UK appears to have stalled, elsewhere digital health solutions are not only successfully integrated into traditional care models, but are having a positive impact on the people in receipt of care, and reducing the burden of work on care providers.

Lessons from Barcelona

In Spain, the law has guaranteed access to telecare since 2006. Economic austerity has led to individual local authorities in Spain being given control over their budgets and therefore their provision of telecare. The approach in Barcelona has been highlighted as an example of best practice in telecare.

The system there – a cooperative venture between an independent provider and the local authority – sees carers take a proactive approach to telecare. The system does not just monitor and provide assistance in times of distress, but proactively engages with service users at regular intervals to help carers provide reassurance and build relationships.

As well as the emergency measures, such as fall sensors (typically the primary use of telecare in the UK), calls are made to check up on service users, provide reassurance, deliver general public health information and to mark important occasions, like birthdays. This can help to reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness, which in turn can lead to better general health and wellbeing.

Calls can also be made to highlight important information, such  as weather warnings; safety alerts and local events which the service users may wish to attend. These calls are backed up by visits from the care team, who work for the telecare provider. These visits supplement visits from municipal care and social workers and the two teams communicate and share information via digital platforms.

Digital healthcare as an enabler

The case of Barcelona shows us how digital healthcare solutions, and more specifically telecare, can be used as an enabler – a tool to allow the local authority to pursue a joined up and preventative approach to healthcare which has positive benefits for recipients.

Such approaches could also have a significant impact on the UK’s 3.8 million unpaid carers. Telecare has the potential to reduce some of the burden and stress of caring for a relative, which in turn can have positive effects on the health of the person in receipt of care. It can also  form an effective part of reablement programmes – supporting people as they leave hospital or return to independent living.

However the approach to delivering telecare in Britain is as much about culture as it is about the technological infrastructure. Using telecare as part of a preventative, person-centred approach should produce better outcomes. In this sense, implementation of telecare in the UK still lags behind other countries. Key lessons could also be learnt from programmes in Norway and the Netherlands in relation to telecare in dementia settings.

Generally, the targeting of telecare services also differs – in the UK it tends to be aimed at elderly people with complex and diverse needs, while in Norway and the Netherlands the focus has shifted to those suffering from chronic illnesses.

Local solutions

In the UK, some local authorities have been experimenting with digital healthcare, although local authority budget cuts have meant that in many cases these have been cut back to focus delivery on the most vulnerable clients.

The lessons in digital healthcare that Britain can learn from places like Barcelona could be key to the successful roll out of digital healthcare solutions in the future. The Barcelona example highlights the enabling role that telecare can play in joining up health and social care and promoting a more preventative approach to healthcare.

Opportunities to develop telecare strategies and deliver them in partnership, as in the Barcelona model, show that it cannot be delivered in isolation, or be used as a replacement for existing carer-led services. Instead telecare has the potential to be a supporting tool to ensure effective care outcomes. It could also help care services in Britain to tackle the increasing demand of an ageing population.


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