Occupational Therapist brings technology into the heart of the community to better support people with memory loss.

Christine Roworth-Gaunt is a Memory Service Occupational Therapist at St Mary’s Hospital in Leeds. She works with a lot of older people, many of whom are housebound. As part of Tinder Foundation’s Widening Digital Participation programme with NHS England her practice has partnered with local UK online centre, mHabitat, to bring technology into the heart of the community and better support people with memory loss.

Occupational therapy is a form of treatment which is used when someone is having difficulty with everyday tasks, either due to a medical condition, learning disability or mental health condition. Christine supports people who suffer from memory loss, identifying their strengths and difficulties, and helps them to develop practical solutions. The NHS Widening Digital Participation programme has helped her to do that with digital.

Christine says: “The NHS project has been wonderful. We’ve been working with mHabitat who have provided us with a number of tablets that we use on a one-to-one basis or in group settings. They’ve even sorted them with different apps that we need for our particular client groups and have fixed any glitches or technical problems that we’ve had. We’ve also been provided with WiFi access at our acute hospitals thanks to Tinder Foundation. This digital aspect is something that we’re now able to feed into the community and build into our memory service offer.

“My client group is primarily over 65 and I think digital technology has, in most cases, passed people by. As they become older and more housebound they become more reliant on other people doing things for them. If we teach them how to actually do things for themselves using a laptop then that’s brilliant. It’s all about independence, it’s all about autonomy for people.”

Christine’s patients learn a lot of different skills, including online shopping, how to use video calls and emails, and how to do jigsaws online. These skills may seem straight-forward to the tech-savvy but for Christine’s patients, they are invaluable.

She says: “Digital skills are very important for patients because we live in a very digital world now, and there are so many people who are left behind; some have told me they feel redundant or old-fashioned. We want to help them gain these digital skills to enhance their lives and make them feel like they’re still part of society.

“With a lot of patients, especially the ones who are staying in touch with people, I can see it improving their moods and reducing social isolation. It enriches their lives.”

Online health resources have proved particularly useful for Christine’s patients. She says: “Anybody using our tablets, we actually point them towards NHS Choices, so they can have a look at things. People want information. When people don’t know fully what’s happening to them, they become frustrated and low in mood; they feel left in the dark. To get a handle on it and a sense of control is very important for people.”

Being part of the Widening Digital Participation programme has also benefited Christine and her colleagues. “I promote independence at home in community, so anything that facilitates that is part of my job. A lot of people that we see, particularly people who are in their 80s/90s, they’re very socially isolated, probably with physical difficulties, so they can’t get out and about easily. If you can bring them something that can enrich their lives and provide quality, that’s brilliant.

“It’s made a real difference to a lot of the people I work with. The referrals that we’re getting through now from different colleagues in different professions mean that they know about what we’re doing with digital and they’re aware that we can go out and work with people. They’re quite excited about it.”

Christine believes that in an increasingly digital world, digital health is the way forward for the NHS. She says: “Everything’s going digital so the sooner we can get people on board and using it, the better it is for them. I’d like to see more programmes like Widening Digital Participation rolling out and bringing different digital aspects into people’s lives because everybody out there has something that can be helped or enhanced by technology.

“I think there’s a huge opportunity to do a lot more health monitoring at home – to build up communities of people who have certain conditions in chat rooms, and that kind of thing, for people to be able to share information and get support from other people. The groups that we work with say that it’d be fantastic to talk to people or carers of people who have the same conditions or have the same problems.”

Christine’s had a great experience being part of the Widening Digital Participation programme, and would definitely recommend adopting digital into any practices who have yet to do so. She says: “I think people need to be open to the idea. They need to give it a go and not see the drawbacks straight away. It’s not a cost-saving exercise and it’s not about replacing people with technology – it’s about using technology to support people.

“I think the NHS should fund more programmes like Widening Digital Participation because if we don’t get into it now and do it now, we’ll be left behind and we can’t afford to be doing that. We need to be taking on things that will save us money in the best possible way, so we can put the money where it needs to be.

“Digital can enhance practices and enhance what you’re able to offer people. We need to adopt it; to move forward and not be fearful. It’s all about building for the future and making sure our patients are healthy, safe and, most importantly, happy. It really is brilliant.”