Creating Synergy Between Technology & Dementia Care

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The LeadingAge expo is coming up next week. We’re going to be there — and we hope you will be, too. 

There’s going to be a lot of stuff going on this year. Somewhere among the seminars, the product demos, and the exhibition booths — goat yoga, anyone? — you’ll find Jack York, President and cofounder of It’s Never 2 Late (iN2L), a mission based company focused on using technology to bring dignity and meaning into older adults’ lives. 

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While he’s always happy to evangelize yoga with goats, he’s also bringing a more serious mission to the conference. It’s about the role that technology plays in dementia care. Or, more accurately, the lack of it. 

“Technology is absolutely exploding into senior living,” Jack says. “But often times its driven from an operational standpoint,  improving residents quality of life is left out of the equation.” 

He believes that’s a serious oversight, one that diminishes the spirits of memory unit residents and the staff that care for them. We couldn’t agree more, and we find Jack’s arguments inspiring. 

Here’s his case for why all could do a little better. 


The bias in dementia tech 

Jack believes that people resist deploying technology in memory units because they can’t picture how it might benefit residents’ lives. “Dementia makes it difficult to imagine the possibilities,” he says.  

This happens for two reasons: 

1 - “Too old for tech.” 

The first is a fluke of history. 

In the US, the average age of onset for dementia is 83.7 years old. That means someone experiencing their first dementia symptoms today was about 73 when the first iPhone came out.  

Obviously, these people grew up well before the age of Apps. Many assume that means they wouldn’t be interested in them. Tech, they believe, is simply before these older adults’ times.  

2 - “Dementia tech is too hard.” 

The second problem is thornier. 

People with dementia are in cognitive decline. Their brains don’t work the same way as the average adults’.  

It’s harder to get — and keep — their attention. Their working memory is much more limited. They won’t always be able to follow instructions. All this makes designing technology that appeals to them much more difficult. 

“It’s hard to build systems that engage residents with dementia,” Jack says. “But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it!” 

 

Fact: Tech helps residents with dementia thrive 

As you might expect, those two biases don’t deter the iN2L team.  They believe that they shouldn’t deter anyone else, either. He’s seen way too much first-hand success to write off tech’s benefits.  

“That interaction is so important for them. Without stimulation, that cognitive decline accelerates, and things go downhill fast. I really believe people would focus a lot more on tech’s potential if they saw what happens when it really clicks with a resident.” 

For instance, look at how this woman lights up when she’s shown a program that lets her interact with her childhood home: 

This video showcases an important element for tech’s successful interactions with dementia residents — they have to get personal. 


“Whoever you are, young, old, whatever, how everyone uses technology is highly personal,” Jack says. “We all want to stay relevant and connected,  people living with dementia are no different.” 

 The closer our technology comes to meeting residents where they are, the more engaged they’ll become, and the more they’ll thrive with the help of these innovations.  

 

Tech’s most important function 

No doubt, everyone brings different needs to their technology. But Jack says certain longings are universal. 

“The truth is that the need for tech has nothing to do with aging. We all want to feel a sense of agency in our lives, and we all want to feel connected to other people. That’s what technology does when it’s at its best.” 

These connections immeasurably improve the lives of residents with dementia.  

They can span across generations, too. At LeadingAge this year, Jack will be sharing his stage with Denise Rabidoux, CEO of EHM Senior Solutions, in Saline Michigan.  

Denise is being commended for creating a bold program that connected local teenagers with residents in EHM communities. Teens used FOCUS tablets (provided by iN2L) to interview residents about significant events or places in their lives — and then went into the field to capture images of what the residents spoke of.  

When the teenagers brought the images back, the residents saw startling growth in their ability to recall details from their pasts. Suddenly, they could recount songs, old nicknames, pets and hobbies.  

And if that weren’t enough, the experience also helped these teenagers relate to older adults in their community. Sabrina Heller was a high-school senior when she joined in this experience, and she’ll be talking about it at LeadingAge, too.  

“It was an eye-opener for me, realizing that through dementia and everything that was blocking her memory, Arlene still had a strong connection with her past,” Helmer said to Alzheimers.net.  

 

It takes a commitment

Heller’s attitude underscores Jack’s biggest takeaway point.  

It wasn’t the tablets that stirred these residents’ memories; it was the painstaking efforts of these committed teenagers.  

“The tech can’t do it alone,” Jack says. “It only works if we’re committed, if everyone involved buys in.” 

It’s Jack’s argument — one that LifeLoop stands fully behind — that if we want to see technology enrich the lives of those we care for, we have to show a commitment just as strong. In the end, it’s the people behind the machines that make the difference.  

Amy Johnson