When assistive technology transforms a care home

Dave Hursthouse


Dave Hursthouse is the assistive technology project manager at Hill House in Sandbach. One year since the assistive technology project began, he tells us how it is changing lives.

Hill House resident using assistive technology

Tackling loneliness and isolation

Leonard Cheshire recently conducted some research into ‘digital exclusion in the digital age’. We found some quite disturbing results:

  • 20% of people with a disability had no access to the internet
  • 50% of people with a disability had no computer or smartphone
  • 50% had feelings of loneliness.

I think we can all relate to feelings of loneliness and isolation over the past year. But imagine if that was how it was going to be for the rest of your life? I don’t think any of us would think that would be fair.
 
Digital technology in our everyday lives is increasing. Disabled people could become excluded. We have to do something about that now.

Our project at Hill House in Sandbach is looking to address this. We want to share what we learn with other Leonard Cheshire care homes. We also want to share our findings across the care sector.

We’re now just over a year into our three-year project. In the first six months of the project, we focused on tackling loneliness and isolation. In March last year, with the arrival of some new phrases like ‘lockdown’, our work became even more pressing!

We entered a world of ‘social distancing’ and ‘shielding’! So we’ve been improving opportunities for social inclusion for residents. That’s included the set-up of video conference facilities.

We wanted residents to feel connected to friends and family, so we worked with our activities team. We wanted residents to have visits, tea parties, tours, book clubs and the ever-important Christmas festivities. We’ve had to be very inventive and creative. But with virtual technologies, hopefully, it’s made things a little more bearable.

Tailoring technology to individual

We’re now focussing on the more personal assistive and accessible technology. This means taking a very person-centred approach to work with our residents. We want to understand their needs and wants. This will allow us to find appropriate technology to aid them with what they want to do in their everyday lives.
 
We’re making great use of low-cost smart home technologies such as Alexa, Google Assistant and Siri. These can be life-changing for folk whose dexterity or mobility is inhibited. These individuals can now independently control their own environment.

At Leonard Cheshire, we want to make such technologies available to as many folks who want to and can use them.

Augmentative and alternative communication

But what about the folks without a voice? The ability to communicate and express ourselves is a fundamental human right. Many people take it for granted.

As you can see from our film, we now have a range of augmentative and alternative communication devices available to us.

We’ve been working with our own specialist clinicians and technicians, including a speech and language therapist and an occupational therapist. We’ve been using various text-to-speech software packages that run on standard Windows and iOS devices. These help people better communicate and express themselves. For some of our residents, it’s been like opening the flood gates and seeing a torrent of pent-up words literally come flooding out!

These aren’t quick and easy devices to communicate with, particularly where we’ve had to help identify and adapt access methods for folk who can’t access a keyboard or touch screen. But they’re much better than not being able to communicate at all.

Our assistive technology clinical pathway caters for continuous assessment, trial, intervention and reassessment. We continue until we find workable and sustainable solutions for our residents.

Keeping up with technology

The rate and pace of change in technology is phenomenal. You’ll have seen plenty of evidence of this yourselves. Can you imagine a world without smartphones now? The first iPhone was released in 2007. That’s only 14 years ago! Current smartphones mean we now carry around more computing power in our pockets than Nasa had available to land a man on the moon.

That rate of change of technology is quickly flowing through to the field of assistive technology. Already this year, we’ve seen the emergence of technologies such as VoiceITT. At Hill House, we’ve been very fortunate and privileged to be part of the European pilot of their Beta software.
 
VoiceITT takes the concept of language translation engines. It uses that to allow people with unfamiliar speech to communicate in near real-time through a translation device.

The residents are now able to use this software to verbalise some of their most frequent needs. We’re also exploiting the VoiceITT integration into Alexa to allow our residents to control their smart home technology too.

This time last year, that just wasn’t possible! It’s not beyond the realms of imagination that this kind of technology could represent the future of augmentative and alternative communication devices in the not-too-distant future.

Looking forward

In the second year of the project, I’m looking forward to exploring a range of sensory equipment to better benefit some of our Hill House residents.

We’ll be ensuring that we embed the sustainability aims of the project at the service. We want the technology we’ve implemented to become ever more normal for the residents. We will also help ensure staff can continue to use and support it long after the project finishes. 
 
I’m also looking forward to extending the concepts and learnings from Hill House across the north of England. Then, if success continues, rolling it out nationally. This is a hugely exciting phase.

We’ll start to be able to help even more of our Leonard Cheshire residents take advantage of the benefits of assistive technology. I can’t wait to see more people reach greater levels of independence, social inclusion and satisfaction.