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 How Aging Populations Can Use Technology to Combat Dementia

Matching up current technology with individual interests can mean big rewards for residents and patients.

 

There is a buzz building about technology’s ability to enrich the lives of the aging, effectively turning back the clock, and advancing new possibilities.

According to a study​ by Pew Research Center, most older adults make internet use a part of their daily lives. For most online older adults, ages 65 and older, internet use is a daily fixture, with 67 percent accessing the news on mobile devices and 77 percent of adults over 65 owning a mobile phone.

Still, amidst all of the valid excitement over technology’s positive effects on the aging population, huge gaps and opportunities remain in the space. Much of the technology is dedicated toward the concept of “aging in place,”—defined as the ability to live in one’s own home and community safely, independently, and comfortably. These products are aimed at keeping people connected and brain-fit, as well as enhancing wellness and longevity. These are all valid endeavors, and it is fascinating as every year goes by to see what is on the horizon.

Plugging In
By engaging older adults and helping them to continue learning as well as socialize with friends and family members, technology has helped improve quality of life for many. In fact, many older adults have enthusiastically adopted technology to keep up with the times as well as their old acquaintances and younger family members. Technology has become a healthy emotional outlet and word of its benefits is spreading.
 
Many senior living communities have integrated technology programs into residents’ daily routines as today’s technology can keep older adults connected, mentally active, and physically safe. It’s no wonder older adults have Facebook accounts to connect with their grandchildren, or use iPad apps to play Scrabble, Solitaire, and other games to keep their minds engaged.

However, in the wake of that well-justified enthusiasm, folks dealing with cognitive decline, and in particular dementia, can be left out of the equation. Arguably, those experiencing cognitive decline have the most to gain from adopting technology of any group. And the good news is that finding ways to help this group through technology isn’t very complicated.
 
The Right Technology for the Right Person
It’s important to realize that the dramatic impact seen with technology and dementia over the years has not usually come from new and groundbreaking technologies. Instead, it typically comes from repurposing tools already available. Most people have become blasé—maybe a bit cynical—about the transformative power of new technologies. While lives are changed through these tools, it happens incrementally, so the novelty and astonishment can wear off. Not so for those living with dementia.

Imagine what it’s like for a 93-year-old with mid-stage dementia to see the house she grew up in via Google Earth. Or a grandmother in Iowa watching her granddaughter get married in France via Skype. Or a Korean War pilot reliving the experience of flying simply by navigating a joystick with off-the-shelf flight simulation software.
 
We have these tools and many more at our disposal every day; it’s just a matter of integrating them into the dementia landscape. Of course, caregivers must account for the cognitive and physical realities of each individual person, but that reality does not change the human desire we all feel to stay connected and to stay relevant.
 
Fortunately, over the years caregivers have come forth with thousands of ideas as to how to change the paradigm and make technology more accessible to the aging. What these valued caregivers have taught us is that what matters is not technology for its own sake, but searching to find the right technology that is most relevant to that one person. For example, to the geography teacher, it’s putting together a puzzle of the United States; to the priest, it’s hearing the rosary; to the farmer, it’s being immersed in multimedia videos of farming. 

We all have our own quirks and interests, and the communities that do it right are the ones that proactively look for technology solutions that match the needs of each person. It’s a fun, rewarding puzzle to put together.
 
Options for the Imagination

What are the technology options for assisted living facilities serving dementia patients?  Imagine computers, tablets, or smartboards with touchscreen versatility and adaptive devices for individuals with physical and cognitive disabilities. These devices are loaded with picture-based interfaces to launch senior-friendly applications with continually updated content for brain fitness, education, virtual travel, spirituality, music, games, trivia, exercise, and specialized dementia programming. They offer family communication tools including webcams for video chat and user-friendly email.
 
And the benefits to patients? Improved socialization and quality of life, enriched communication with family and community, enhanced independence and increased cognitive stimulation, leading to a reduction in psychotropic drugs and loneliness, are just a few advantages of this type of technology.

Most certainly, providing communities with dignified, state-of-the art activities and therapy experiences, as well as creative and meaningful dementia programming differentiates communities in the marketplace.
 
The journey into technology for the aging population is just beginning. Thanks to the promise of virtual reality, augmented reality, voice activation, holograms and more, the future is bright, and full of endless possibilities. Those working with older adults should keep looking for technology that will keep those served as healthy and independent as long as possible. It is without question a noble endeavor. By looking for ways to benefit the folks that seem like they are the hardest to reach, one will be blown away by the outcomes. The smiles received will make it worth the effort.

Jack York is president and co-founder of It’s Never 2 Late® (iN2L) is an award-winning developer of digital engagement technology for senior living community residents, with over 2,500 installations in the United States and Canada. He can be reached at jyork@in2l.com or 303-909-9899.
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