As the UK Government launches its dementia strategy 2020, there’s no doubt great strides have been made in the last 5 years in bringing this devastating disease to the forefront of public consciousness. Initiatives from Purple Angel, the Alzheimer’s Society, Innovations in Dementia, Alive Activities, Dementia Adventures, The Memory Box Network and many more committed groups have made the UK a much more friendly and responsive place for people living with the disease. Despite major pharmaceutical companies pulling out of further drug research, Alzheimer’s Research UK is at the forefront of spearheading new thinking with a £100m fund to fast track new treatments and clinical trials. While this work continues, people living with dementia, as well as those who don’t yet have a diagnosis, need support to live as well as possible. Carers need support too. Two thirds of the UK’s £26bn cost of dementia is picked up by unpaid carers supporting loved ones. Without a cure on the immediate horizon, it’s time to look seriously at how technology can help today and in the next decade.
There’s an assumption that the future profile of people living with dementia will be similar to those of today. In fact they are likely to be very different; they have grown up with technology all around them, they are comfortable with augmenting their lives with information from the web, apps, sensors and wearables and expect responsive, personalised information streams to inform, improve and manage day to day living. They will continue to use social networks, virtual communications and digital tools to monitor and improve their health, well into what we now consider to be ‘old age’. The habit of using these virtual services and devices will persist as they have become embedded early on, so new learning won’t be required. Services will also continue to become smarter at serving us what we need when we need it. Digital communication technologies to support people to live as well as possible as long as possible must therefore be an essential part of any strategy, alongside pharmaceutical research and structured support for informal and formal care circles.
The NHS 5 Year Forward View recognises the impact technology, including smartphones and tablets, can have on individual health as well as the wider medical system and that we must become more agile at experimentation, validation and dissemination. This conversation is beginning to address dementia, but it is fragmented and often targeted at monitoring and managing people, rather than providing tools to maintain individuality and independence as long as possible.
This is a discussion that must accelerate as the National Dementia Strategy is re-launched. Around 9% of people living with dementia are under 65 and many are already using tablets and smartphones to create their own coping strategies. These are the trailblazers who point to what will become the norm in a relatively short term as this group ages, diagnoses are made more rapidly and new cases emerge as Millennials age. We cannot be confident new drugs and therapies will emerge quickly enough to meet this demand.
The last National Dementia Strategy only addressed technology in the context of assistive technology and telecare in housing. Since it was written in 2009/10, the personal technology landscape has exploded; the first iPad, released in 2010, paved the way for tablets to become ubiquitous, health and fitness wearable trackers have moved from special interest devices to the mainstream and the use of the internet has become an essential part of life, for all generations. 96% of UK adults aged 55 – 65 go online, according to the Office of National Statistics, along with 93% of 65 -75 year olds and 86% of those aged 75+ used the internet in the first quarter of 2014, the most recent statistics available.
Technology alone is rarely the answer and we must continue to ‘Put People First’, which includes carers and families as well as accelerating research to find a cure or way of delaying onset, but the way in which we could use our connected devices to make a difference in dementia care must have a higher priority in the next strategy, whichever political party comes to power after the next election.