New technology to improve old age

By Katie Dawson
BBC News

Image caption,
The Maavis computer programme gives elderly users easy access to the internet

New technology is being designed to help elderly people live independently for longer - an industry expected to increase as our population grows older.

Jean Sawbridge had never used a computer until six months ago.

The 93-year-old resident of Northfield Nursing Home in Sheffield now surfs the web every week through a specially-designed computer programme called Maavis.

"It comes up with some lovely things," said Mrs Sawbridge, who has lost the use of her right hand due to a small stroke.

"I have been speaking to my friend in Portugal. I spoke to her a few weeks ago and she showed us some photographs.

"It's marvellous what you can find."

Designed by researchers at the University of Sheffield, Maavis gives elderly users easy access to the internet, Skype video conferencing and music or lets them share photographs on one simple programme.

Parkinson's disease

Prof Mark Hawley, head of the Rehabilitation and Assistive Technology Research Group at the university, said the UK was already the market leader in this type of technology but added the industry could get even bigger.

"The UK is in a good position from an economic point of view for this to be one of the things we specialise in," he said.

"I think it's going to be very big in the next 10 years.

Image caption,
Jean Sawbridge goes online every week at Northfield Nursing Home

"With the growth of the older population and the increase in the number of people with long-term conditions, increases in people with disabilities, this type of technology is going to very big.

"It could make a big impact on the quality of life of older people if we get it right."

Northfield Nursing Home is one of nine care homes in Yorkshire which has been trialing Maavis for the University of Sheffield.

About 10 residents have been getting to grips with the computer programme, which can be used with a touch screen computer, making it easier to use for those with conditions should as arthritis and Parkinson's disease.

Teaching a generation who are more accustomed to manual typewriters than computers is not an easy task.

But Northfield's activities coordinator Caroline Twist makes it as simple as possible, and is careful not to use any words or phrases that might confuse the residents.

Live independently

"I usually ask them if they want to look at some photographs or ring one of their family members (through Skype)," she said.

"It makes it seem less scary and complicated than saying internet or going online. They are words they are not familiar with.

"They understand what a computer is and information research but going online and saying internet is quite scary for them."

Miss Twist, who hopes to get internet access in the whole building so their computer can be put on a trolley and taken to those residents who are bed-ridden, said such technology was helping to change the lives of people in care homes.

"With these computers...people will not be so lonely," she said. "Families feel guilty because they cannot come in regularly but if they can make a five to 10-minute phone call where they can see their relatives it's going to improve their life."

During the testing, the university found about 60% of residents used Maavis and that social interaction between residents was improved.

Researchers are now looking for funding to widen the range of activities the programme offers, including adding remote therapy sessions.

The University of Sheffield has been researching and developing technology to help older people and those with disabilities live more independently for more than 10 years.

"From our point of view, the fact that the population is ageing means there are not only more older people, but more people with conditions and disabilities," Prof Mark Hawley said.

"Technology can be used to help people be independent or help them live independently at home so they don't have to go into homes and hospitals."

Voice demands

Toby Churchill, a Cambridge-based manufacturer which specialises in communication aid devices, has funded some of the research being carried out at the University of Sheffield to develop a speech device that allows those with speech problems to control their home by voice demands.

Although still in the early stages, researchers are developing a speech-driven environmental control system which will recognise commands, such as turning off lights or locking the door, even though the user may not be able to speak clearly.

The firm, which already manufacturers a portable speech aid device for people with speech loss, hopes to be able to manufacture the device within the next few years.

John Hicks, marketing director at Toby Churchill, said there was a big market for this kind of product in Britain, adding that the NHS was the firm's main UK customer.

"I think we are going to see more people with more health conditions because of their age," he said.

"But I think we will see more people with conditions that will require devices and less funding because of the deficit.

"I think the government in the UK is going to have to make big decisions about where they prioritise healthcare."