Making technology easier for a person with dementia

 Christina Macdonald explains how to make traditional labour-saving devices easier to use

If a person has dementia, using daily devices that many of us take for granted like mobile phones, TV remote controls and microwaves can become a challenge. For a person with dementia, these devices can eventually become impossible to use or in some cases, it’s easy for them to get items of a similar shape or size mixed up.

My mother would often confuse the TV remote control with her telephone, or she would confuse her glasses case with her purse. She lived alone at the time, so the TV was her companion during the day and to not remember how to turn it on sometimes or not know how to change channels was hugely frustrating for her. She had also forgotten how to use the stereo or the radio, so would often spend hours in the house alone, in complete silence. This not only made the house seem more isolated and lonely, it also meant that she didn’t get to enjoy any mental stimulation. It became apparent to me that mobile devices needed to be easier for her to use. So what’s the solution to making them usable for a person with dementia?

Identifying devices
In my experience, there’s no easy answer to this as it depends on how advanced a person’s dementia is. My mother has now completely lost the ability to identify any modern devices, which of course means she can’t operate any of them. However, before she deteriorated, I was able to make some changes that worked for a period of time. With her TV remote control, I taped over the buttons she didn’t need to use. Having the use of the ‘on’ and ‘off’ button, volume and channels was all she needed. She certainly wasn’t interested in other functions such as the size of the screen. She just wanted to watch a bit of TV without struggling to turn it on or change channels.
When it came to using the phone, I replaced her old handset, which also had numerous buttons, with a simple Doro phone that literally had a numerical keypad and two buttons to end and start a call. This worked for a while, although she would eventually lose the ability to use a phone altogether.

I labeled her glasses case and her purse, so that she knew exactly what was inside each item. I also replaced her microwave with the simplest one I could find and left a large typed note above the microwave pointing to the start button.

Time of day and date is often confusing for a person with dementia, so I also purchased a ‘Day Clock’ which literally displays date and time, as well as the day of the week.

Finally, for audio company, I bought her a radio that had one button that you press to play music, and it’s clearly labeled as such. It was deliberately designed for simplicity.

Replacing broken items
Of course if you have a piece of equipment that stops working and needs to be replaced, this can present additional challenges. A person with dementia may lack the ability to learn new skills or adapt to learning how to operate a new piece of equipment. If you do have to replace an item that a person has used for many years, then it’s worth investing in the simplest, most basic version of what they’ve had before. A direct replacement if possible would be the ideal scenario. Failing that, try to purchase a piece of kit with large buttons or easy to read symbols.

With many of these products, there is a good chance they will provide better quality of life for a person with dementia. It also encourages the person to retain their independence, reduce their chances of getting frustrated and hopefully not lose their confidence when it comes to using daily items that most of us take for granted.