Whether you love it or hate it, there’s no denying that new technology is having a significant impact on dementia care. So can clever gadgets really make a big difference to people with dementia? We examine the growing popularity of assistive technology

If the word ‘technology’ makes your heart sink, then the phrase ‘assistive technology’ might bring you out in a cold sweat. After all, if you grew up in the days when a phone (if you were lucky enough to have one) was shared by every member of the household - usually located in the hallway - today’s smart technology can seem baffling at best, alienating at worst.

Whilst it’s true that some older people have become very tech-savvy, many others would admit that modern technology has left them behind, becoming a source of frustration rather than support. But the fast growth of so-called ‘assistive technologies’ could soon change all that. Why? Because assistive technology is all about one thing; simplicity. And when you’re caring for someone with dementia, the best way to keep daily life easier, is to keep it simple. Perhaps that’s why the latest gadgets and devices designed to keep a person with dementia safe, happy and enjoying life are rapidly growing in popularity.

Assistive technologies don’t only provide simple solutions (worried about falls? Try a motion sensor light. Concerned about confusion? Get a day clock). The best ones are also simple to use, which is very good news for family carers who don’t want to spend any precious ‘free’ time following complicated set-up guides or studying instruction manuals.

Dementia experts agree that these innovative technologies are generally good news for people with dementia. ‘We know that if you give people with dementia a supportive environment to live in, they experience a slower rate of decline,’ Professor Graham Stokes, Bupa’s Global Director of Dementia Care, told Unforgettable: ‘Technological innovation is already making it easier for people with dementia to live their lives independently and safely, and more innovations and monitoring technologies are on their way, which could have a very positive impact.’

However, whilst the technology itself might be new, the principle behind assistive technology is well established. In fact, the unique UK charity Designability has been designing medical equipment to improve people’s lives for nearly 50 years. As creators of the best-selling Simple Music Player, Designability (one of Unforgettable’s charity partners) is now recognised as a centre of excellence within the assistive technology field.

‘We know there are many people who will benefit enormously from simple products and technologies,’ says Alexandra Leach, the charity’s Commercial Manager. ‘Often, they just do not know that products are available. Or if they are aware, they are uncertain which ones to choose.’

Sure enough, since Unforgettable launched two years ago, awareness has steadily grown, and thousands of people have learnt more about, and embraced the benefits of, assistive technologies. Demand for everything from ultra-simple phones to GPS trackers, simple TV remotes, home monitoring systems and even a new stripped-back tablet, is growing rapidly.

So how could these simplified technologies change future dementia care? A major NHS study about the place technology can play in dementia care is currently underway. The study called TIHM (Technology Integrated Health Management) for dementia, is analysing how home monitoring devices such as sensors and GPS trackers can help keep people safe. Their potential is certainly enormous; not only can they support people to stay in their own home, they can also help reduce hospital and care home admissions and relieve untold stress on families and carers.

However, TIHM researchers stress that all the devices being studied are ‘designed to work alongside the existing care a person receives and will not replace that support.’ It seems that for the time being at least assistive technology will continue to do exactly that …assist. Which is probably just as well, because no matter how smart they become, or how much practical help they can offer, we doubt that any device could ever replace the need for human care, compassion and kindness... that’s where you come in.