Age UK South Tyneside: Better supporting people with dementia thanks to NHS Widening Digital Participation

20 Jun 2016

The NHS Widening Digital Participation programme has benefitted thousands of learners within the Online Centres Network, and has also had a positive impact on the participating centres themselves, allowing them to explore different engagement methods and build on the range of services they offer. Age UK South Tyneside is one of these centres, and through the programme they’ve been able to gain valuable insight to further develop the support they provide to people with dementia.
Age UK South Tyneside tutor Sukhy Dhillon helping a learner get to grips with computers

Age UK South Tyneside is an Online Centre based in South Shields. They support older people in the area, aiming to inspire them to improve their health and wellbeing through different methods - including the use of technology. They often work with people who have dementia and the Widening Digital Participation programme has allowed them to adapt their engagement model to better support them.

Martin Simpson, Digital Inclusion Coordinator for the centre, says: “Initially there were a few preconceptions about working with people with dementia. How were they going to cope? How were they going to remember what we do with them? So it was a case of trying out different ideas to make sure that what we were teaching would be easily embedded and simple to recall.”

The team at Age UK tried different engagement methods to find which ones work best for supporting people with dementia. Martin says: “We talked to everyone who had worked with people with dementia that we could think of, and we came up with lots of different approaches.”

One of the things they did was to completely simplify anything the learner would see when using technology or browsing the web.

Martin says: “We took anything that was irrelevant off the main screen, and only left things that they could recognise, identify with, and be able to click on and use straightaway without any problems. Buttons was particularly useful for this.”

The simplification process also involved the way they communicate with their learners: “We had to find alternative ways of explaining techniques and things to people. We do a lot of work with junior school and early senior school kids, mainly aged 10-12, and we worked roughly at those levels - it seemed to be really effective.”

Another crucial part of the process was adding a personal approach - going in initially and talking to somebody and finding out their history and their interests. Martin says: “We brought together any information we could find from support staff and carers. The more we could find out about someone’s history, the more we could personalise what we were teaching.

“Lots of people we work with basically have gone into care homes and been left to do what they want to do. They’ve been sitting in their lounge for years, not engaging with anybody. So when we’ve gone in we’ve made sure that we’ve been doing activities that might relate to them. They come over and engage with us! The fact that we’ve stimulated an interest means that we’ve established a trust rather than going in and dictating things to them.”

Developing trust with dementia patients is especially important to the team at Age UK. Martin says: “You need to have somebody who is really good with people. Someone who can talk and doesn’t come across as patronising or superior to the person they’re working with. They need to engage at the learner’s level and be able to change that from day-to-day, moment to moment, depending how the learner is feeling or what sort of day they’re having.

“I think the fact that we were able to support our tutors and bring them together regularly, so they could support each other had a massive impact, and the people we’ve selected for our dementia learners are ‘social tutors’ whereas for our everyday learners we’d select more ‘technical tutors’. This plays into the linguistics as well. We’ve found generally that the people who are more technical aren’t the best for this project. ”

The different symptoms associated with dementia have meant that the team has had to be smart to overcome challenges and obstacles that the learners may face. Martin says: “First we had to get the right equipment for the right person. Some people prefer desktops, others prefer laptops, some like to use a tablet. When we found the right equipment we then often had to tackle other issues, for example some people couldn’t use their hands properly, so we had to find a way for them to use the technology as well.

“One big problem we had in particular was with tablets and learners who are blind or partially sighted. We combated this by introducing them to accessibility options, such as audio descriptions on Windows, or use of the Dolphin Guide (an accessibility product for people with a visual impairment) - this was especially useful for our learners who both have dementia and are blind.”

With dementia becoming a more prominent health issue in today’s society, it’s more important than ever for organisations to be able to offer this tailored support, and it’s easier for them to do so through projects like Widening Digital Participation.

Martin says: “We are slowly becoming a dementia-friendly organisation. We have tutors who are already Dementia Friends champions and we are encouraging all staff to become one, so they’re aware of the issues affecting people with dementia. We’re also adapting what we do throughout all of our services to work with people with dementia.

“I think all of this would have happened eventually but because of our involvement in this project it’s happened more rapidly and everybody has been on board straight away because they’ve seen the impact that we’re having and saying ‘we want to get involved in that as well’.

“One very successful element of the project is the multisensory approach we've taken, which has had a massive impact on what we’re doing. It all came about by sheer coincidence. I was visiting the Centre for Life in Newcastle and one of their researchers mentioned the success they had observed using sensory gardens where people experienced a number of differing smells which seemed to improve memory in people with dementia. We discussed if this could be applied to teaching digital skills, building on the research that suggests smell is one of the key stimuli to memory and cognition. Although this was a big leap from what had previously been tried it would be something of huge interest that no one had ever had a chance to investigate in this way. We had been given the opportunity to try anything as part of this project, so we decided to give it a go. We came up with a plan to link each area of learning with a distinct smell and observe whether this approach made any difference to the short, medium and long-term outcomes in learners recalling and understanding what we were teaching. It has proved to be a great success!

“We use lots of different types of smells - furniture polish, air freshener, perfume. One of our learners who has dementia found the approach very helpful. When my team taught him about email they sprayed Pledge; when they taught him how to search on Google they sprayed air freshener. When the learner tried to use his new skills on his own he struggled, so decided to spray the Pledge and he was able to send an email to his son. I know it sounds crazy but it really does work and is something we wouldn’t have thought of without working on this project.

“Technology is evolving and the way we access things is evolving. Systems change and we need to change what we do. For Age UK South Tyneside everything we’ve done since we started this work on the Widening Digital Participation project has people with dementia in mind and will continue to do so. It’s been great for the centre because it’s changed the way we approach our relationships with learners and our style of teaching, and has made us more aware of different people’s needs. I would definitely say that the project has been a success for us.”

To find out more about Good Things Foundation’s work on the NHS Widening Digital Participation Programme please visit: