Dementia-friendly environments: Assistive technology

What is assistive technology?

Many different pieces of technology – known as 'assistive technology' – are available that can provide useful support for people with dementia. There are two main types of assistive technology: those used to monitor or control what the person does and those that compensate or try to make up for the impairments that are affecting the person. An individual's needs should be fully assessed first in order to identify the best solutions. The key to success is providing effective assistive technology that will help maintain a person's independence and make best use of their abilities for as long as possible.

Providing effective assistive technology can help maintain a person’s independence.

Keep it simple

It is important not to rush out to buy and install a range of assistive technology devices until simple solutions have been tried first. For example, if a person is falling often, it may be because carpets are loose or worn, the person is wearing the wrong footwear, electrical cords are in a poor position or the person would benefit from handrails. Just increasing the levels of light can make a big difference (see the Lighting feature in this section).

There are several 'low-tech' ways to assist people with dementia to overcome memory problems. If the person can recognise and understand written notices, a well-positioned reminder board in key areas of the house can alleviate distress. Place post-it notes in strategic positions. Many people will find it easier to read notes written with black ink on yellow paper using large, clear letters. These are the best contrast colours for visual impairment.

Clear signs on doors, cupboards, drawers and taps can be crucial in helping a person with dementia to find their way safely around and help themselves to what they need.

Technology for lighting

Technology can help keep light at the right level, for example, a light sensor can make sure that lights go on when the natural light is reduced. It also saves electricity because lights near a bright window won't go on until sunset or if it is very dull outside. Make sure you pick the right bulbs – some low-energy bulbs take a little while to get up to full light level, and this could be very dangerous around a stairway or doorstep (see the Lighting feature in this section).

Interactive technology

If a person with dementia needs to call for help or alert someone when something has gone wrong (for example, the person has fallen), interactive equipment such as pull-cord alarms can be useful. However, a person has to be near the cord to pull it and, unfortunately, the cords are sometimes tied up by staff to put them out of the way or because they have been tugged by a confused person. They may not be ideal for someone who is easily confused.

People who live alone sometimes use community alarms, usually worn around the neck or wrist as a pendant. The user presses the red button on the pendant to raise the alarm. It is important to ensure that the user is wearing the device at all times because all too often it is discovered hanging from the bedpost or around a tap in the bathroom. A fall detector can be clipped onto a waistband, jacket or belt. But a person with dementia might forget to do this, so if they are living alone there is a limit to its usefulness.

Self-activating technology

Non-interactive equipment includes smoke detectors temperature-extreme monitors (these detect very hot or cold temperatures in a room and set off a noise). The success of these devices depends on the person with dementia understanding what the noise made by the alarm means. Further, they only work after the event, for example, a flood detector that will give off an alarm when a floor is wet, but won't prevent the incident. It is much better to use the sort of bath plug that automatically empties the bath if it gets too full. Usually, prevention is better than the alarm. But it depends on the person involved and their circumstances. 

Technical reminders

Technology can also help with simple reminders. A passive infra-red beam (PIR) can be installed near the door. When anyone passes the PIR, their movement is picked up by the beam and a brief message can appear on an illuminated panel beside the door, providing a reminder, such as 'Take your phone and pendant with you!', or 'Did you lock the back door?'. Change the message regularly otherwise the person may start to ignore it.

While some people may become distressed if they hear an unfamiliar voice, others may welcome a verbal reminder. This can be as simple as arranging for someone to call at a specific time or using a talking alarm clock that can be programmed to provide helpful reminders throughout the day. Or the PIR could activate a voice message saying, 'Mum, remember to ring me if you are going out!'

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