We live in a technology-driven society that takes instant access and interaction with the rest of the world for granted. Tabby Kinder finds out how the RMBI is helping the older generation cross the digital divide
Late one morning in a sleepy cul-de-sac in Chislehurst, the residents of the RMBI Prince George Duke of Kent Court care home relax in armchairs and sip from mugs of tea. It seems a typical state of affairs that you might find in any UK care home – until you see that the residents are also selecting their favourite songs from a touch-screen computer.
The new Dementia Life computer provides interactive games and entertainment, with photos, TV shows, music and film clips from the 1930s onwards. The touch-screen device is just one of a collection of digital machines installed in all RMBI care homes this year to help get elderly residents interacting with new technologies.
Research by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) shows that the number of people over the age of sixty-five using the internet is on the up. And with more older people getting used to new technologies, the RMBI is welcoming the opportunity to make sure its care home residents are seeing both the social and mental benefits of using computers.
‘Some of the residents are scared of the computer at first because they’ve never used one before,’ says Sue Goodrich, Activity Coordinator at the Prince George care home. ‘It’s a generational thing. But when I show them how to play their favourite song or look up photos of the place they grew up in, suddenly they’re fascinated.’
A paper presented at the International Conference for Universal Design claimed that using a computer can help older people live a fuller life, as it allows them to engage, communicate and create. Scientific journal Plos One suggests that using a computer, smartphone or tablet and regularly using the internet can even decrease the risk of cognitive impairments such as dementia.
While technology has revolutionised communication, entertainment and shopping, until recently it has remained almost exclusively the preserve of the young. In the UK, while ninety-nine per cent of adults aged sixteen to twenty-four have used the internet, according to the ONS, just thirty-three per cent of people over seventy-five have ever spent time online.
But computer use by the older generation is growing and the benefits of online access for older people are being recognised as a necessity, rather than a luxury.
The RMBI offers computer facilities and informal support with IT tasks at all of its care homes in England and Wales, often accompanied by scanners, projection screens, games consoles, and enlarged keyboards and computer mice for improved accessibility. In addition, a few homes are now leading the way with the launch of regular IT training sessions and internet cafes.
Every week, Diane Vowles, a volunteer from Age UK, gathers up a folder of printouts and heads to the Chislehurst care home where she holds workshops to demonstrate the use of personal computers (PCs) using the Dementia Life machine and a shared PC in the home’s dedicated computer room. ‘The residents who are interested surf the net with me and enjoy researching and investigating various subjects. We chat about our personal histories and experiences while searching for images and information on the web.’
‘Some residents can be a bit resistant to new technology but others are relishing it. The ones who get into it are amazed by what they can do.’ Diane Vowles
Vowles’s workshops are part of a national campaign by Age UK to promote digital inclusion among elderly people. ‘Some residents can be a bit resistant to new technology but others are relishing it,’ Vowles says. ‘The ones who get into it are amazed by what they can do.’
One such resident is David Giles, a ninety-one-year-old former lodge Secretary of St Mary’s, Gillingham Green Lodge, No. 6499, and Rainham Lodge, No. 3079, at which he is now an honorary member. ‘When I first met David he was one of the only residents here to have his own computer,’ says Vowles. ‘It was filled with a lifetime of documents – minutes from lodge meetings, agendas, letters, banking – plus he had begun putting together his father’s memoirs.’ Vowles and David now sit down together twice a week at David’s computer and type up pages of memories from his father’s life spent in the steam, seaplane and tractor industries.
‘Hopefully it will make an interesting book for the enthusiasts,’ David says. Although using the computer is a challenge in his advanced years, David puts his ease around the technology down to his daughter and his career spent working as an engineer in the aircraft industry. ‘I started using computers in the 1970s and then I started to get better at using them when my daughter Mary was doing an Open University degree.’
At Prince George, other residents are beginning to follow David’s lead and some have brought their own computers to use in their rooms. ‘One resident wanted to be able to look online to see if she had won on the Premium Bonds and to see where the larger winners lived,’ says Vowles. ‘Another wanted to see images of his previously owned, now vintage, cars and motorcycles. We even checked if an old Birmingham Small Arms Company motorbike was still in circulation – it was!’
Google Earth and Skype software, which allows residents to communicate with relatives around the world, are also proving popular. ‘One resident was able to look up the new home of her daughter in Perth, Australia – the swimming pool was a big surprise,’ laughs Vowles. ‘One former resident used his PC extensively to keep in contact with his wide circle of friends via email and Skype. He had led a very interesting life and I learned a great deal from him, all about his career in everything from wartime flight navigation to optical lenses.’
Susan Barnes, eighty, has been a resident of RMBI Albert Edward Prince of Wales Court in Mid Glamorgan for ten months and uses the library computer for sending emails, writing letters and research. ‘When I first arrived here I was quite lonely and missed my bungalow,’ she says. ‘The computer provided a welcome distraction and allowed me to keep in touch with friends and family. I now have my own laptop and internet in my room. I’m delighted to have learned a new skill and all the staff are great if I have a problem doing something on the laptop.’
‘It’s essential that older people are supported to learn and access the internet if they want to,’ says Charles Knowles, who has been a resident at James Terry Court in Croydon for almost two years. Charles uses a digital camera to send photos of him and his friends during outings to his family, uses the internet to read and listen to the news, and will soon be installing a webcam so he can see his grandchildren. ‘The internet can take you back down memory lane as well as let you see new places and meet new people. It can also make managing day-to-day tasks much easier.’
‘When I show [residents] how to play their favourite song or look up photos of the place they grew up in, suddenly they’re fascinated.’ Sue Goodrich
A new computer cafe, currently in planning stage at the home, will encourage more residents to get online. ‘We are very lucky here at James Terry Court to have access to computers and the internet whenever we like and to have helpful staff around every day who can help with computing tasks,’ adds Charles.
‘It’s all about independence,’ says Rosie Bower, Marketing Manager for the RMBI. ‘We’re committed to offering person-centred care across all of our care homes, allowing our residents to remain in control of their own lives, long after they have moved into one of our homes. Internet and computer access is integral to maintaining a person’s independence in the modern world. The more external interaction our residents have, the more able they are to keep making their own choices.’