Technology giving care-home elderly a window on the world

ELDERLY people are accessing the internet without knowing how to use a computer thanks to specialist technology developed by experts in Yorkshire.

The computer programme devised by scientists from Sheffield University is being used to improve the life of people in care homes.

They believe the simple touch-screen device called MAAVIS (Managed Access to Audio Visual and Information Services) could help many others to use the internet, look at family pictures, play music or even take part in group exercises. A team from the university began developing the technology following research which revealed older people were not only turned off by the word "computer" but very few had used one. Surveys showed only one in 50 people in care homes in Sheffield had ever touched a standard keyboard.

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MAAVIS allows users to access information from websites, recall memories through a picture and video viewer and even practice activities such as tai chi simultaneously across care homes via video conferencing.

Tests across nine Yorkshire care homes found it broke down resistance of staff and residents, bringing the elderly out of their rooms and taking part in more shared activities. More than half of users regularly used the system and families recognised improved social skills and interaction.

Recreation therapist Caroline Twist, of the Northfield Care Home in Sheffield, said many elderly people had not come across computers but the system was allowing residents to keep in touch with relatives.

"When residents come into a care home they can often become cut off and isolated," she said.

"So them using the computer to talk to relatives and to see photographs is really affecting their quality of life.

"Most people in their 90s have not come across computers and it is a little confusing for them but with MAAVIS it is becoming much easier and much more exciting."

She added: "It will be fantastic when the home has touch screens as many of the residents have had strokes or arthritis and, unlike a mouse which requires them to rely on their motor skills which are often very slow, the touch screen should ease any difficulties and make access much easier."

Former pit worker Wreford Boreham, 76, of the Park area of Sheffield, who suffered a stroke 12 years ago, used the computer to search for the Egyptian barracks where he was stationed from 1953-55 during seven-year spell in the army.

He said: "I was surprised that you could bring up things like that from all that time ago.I've never used a computer before."

Former shorthand typist Jean Sawbridge, 93, of Hillsborough, Sheffield, said: "You couldn't compare this computer to the machines I used to use."

Peter Cudd, who led the university team, said: "We found that even mentioning the word 'computer' to elderly people put them off.

"We wanted to help older people have access to the IT world without them going through all the pain of learning."

The approach involves the simplest form of interaction using pointing and touching to call up the required service.