Social care: Is there an app for that?

The role of technology in social care must be to enrich human interaction – not replace it, says Hannah Murphy.

iPads and tablets seem to appeal to a wider range of people than the usual gadget-lovers. They are increasingly topping the wish lists of people aged 65+ and here at the Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust (JRHT) we are seeing more and more people coming into our care homes with tablets and asking about Wi-Fi. So could touchscreen tablets enhance social care?

Since last September I’ve been examining the evidence that they are already beginning to. In dementia care, access to the internet’s abundance of music, pictures and videos is helping people recall past experiences and spark more conversations with each other, carers and between generations. When I’ve used iPads with people in JRHT’s retirement communities, I’ve found it amazing how access to the app store can open up conversation about a person’s life and interests.

It’s not about the technology itself, but what you do with it. Its place in social care must be to enrich – not replace – essential human interaction. One way it could support better relationships is by transferring the excessive paperwork of care workers onto a user-friendly, digital medium. If this was done well, it would give time-stretched carers the ability to focus more on the meaningful aspects of care than the administration. At JRHT, we want to go further than this and use iPads to rebalance the “do to” culture of care - where residents receive one-size-fits-all care rather than being involved in shaping it to their needs.

Inspired by JRF’s A Better Life findings, we think tablets could provide a tool to ensure the voices of older people with high support needs, and those who know them best, are heard and acted upon. The iPad could be owned by the resident and enable them to:

  • make and/or maintain connections with what and who matters to them;  
  • voice their individual preferences in a way which could feed into their care plan;
  • engage with the care home through opportunities to feed back.

There are exciting new ways to listen to what matters to people and tailor their care accordingly. It could be as simple as a “how am I feeling?” function or a “matters to me” priority list a carer could pick up when they enter their room. Existing apps which help people coordinate care or express their preferences could provide the building blocks for these ideas to become reality. I presented these ideas to the National Care Forum and was struck by the enthusiasm for this kind of innovation.

There seems to be a lot of potential for new technology to complement care for the 21st century. Not just to make it more efficient, but to make it more personal, involve loved ones better and enhance the enjoyment good care should offer. The technology needs to be truly fit for purpose, customisable to meet a variety of needs. The trouble for us non-techy people is: Where to start?

What do you think? I’d love to hear your ideas and experiences.