More MS news articles for July 2002

A new lease of life

Margaret and Karen Bell's lives have changed dramatically thanks to an initiative that aims to help the elderly and disabled into the computer age. Sally Whittle meets them

01 July 2002

Life isn't what it used to be for Pat Brown. Until a few months ago, the 68-year-old retired typist visited the Derwentside daycare centre twice a week with her friend Jean Dunn to chat over a cup of tea. Once in a while, there might be bingo, or a sing-along. Today the two women are more likely to be swapping tips on desktop publishing or sending e-mails to their grandchildren.

The transformation is down to Swift; a three-year EU initiative to find ways the internet can improve services and lower the cost of care for elderly people. Since it's projected that a quarter of EU citizens will be aged over 65 in 25 years, the cost of delivering health and social services will increase enormously.

Selected as the UK trial site, Derwentside District Council in County Durham used the opportunity to build its old folk a broadband network that lets them interact online with everyone from the local GP to Meals on Wheels. Pat and Jean, with 23 other Derwentside pensioners, were provided with a set-top box and broadband connection that links their TVs to the network. PCs were also installed.

Users have a password that gives them access to a personalised planner and catalogue. The planner provides details of any appointments with health, council or social services workers, and a photo of the person who will call. Linking it directly to local authority scheduling systems means appointments can be made or amended in real time; the aim is to simplify access and cut missed appointments, which presently cost the NHS £300m each year.

Pat's husband suffers from arthritis and her son has a learning disability, so a variety of health and social workers call at their home each week. Using Swift, Pat can make appointments quickly and request additional services such as home help or respite care. But the key question is, does Pat like it? "I can solve problems without having to press buttons on the phone, and it's comforting to know who will be coming," she says.

Both women were computer novices before the project, and initially found the prospect of using a computer daunting. For Pat, the hardest thing was getting used to talking to someone who doesn't answer back. Jean took some time getting used to the new terminology. However, both women were surprised by how quickly they picked it up. "It couldn't be easier. You just point and press the button," Jean explains.

To ensure the system was appropriate for elderly and disabled users, the development team involved residents at every stage, says Alan Hodgson, the council's project leader. "At first glance the screen looks quite childish, but we found users took to using the system better because they were involved in creating it."

Regular feedback averted many potential problems. Partially sighted users struggled to see low-contrast colours like green and blue, while users with poor dexterity couldn't use conventional keyboards.

David Wilkinson, who lost his sight in 1990, worked with the team to design the pages around the software. The result has given him greater independence, and allowed him to stay in his own home. "I can't use other government websites, but I can use this because it's designed for my needs and not theirs," he says. Neil Churchill, communications director with Age Concern, says that unless the needs of elderly users are taken into account, the UK's e-government initiative will only succeed in creating a second digital divide. For while the government is committed to putting essential services online and providing universal internet access by 2005, Age Concern reports that just 11 per cent of UK pensioners have internet access.

The charity is campaigning for subsidised access and services, which are designed around the needs of those with visual and mobility problems. "The internet can open doors for older people, but only if it's done thoughtfully," Churchill says. At Derwentside, a key benefit of putting services online is integrating previously distinct departments, such as health and social services. Since Bob Liddle was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1990, he has dealt with a web of care providers, including his GP, chiropodist and physiotherapist. Today, he can contact all the agencies through a single interface, and case information can be shared across departments.

For Bob, whose condition has left him with poor vision and a limited attention span, this is an enormous benefit. "It's the being passed from pillar to post and repeating stuff over and over that turns the little things into a nightmare," he says. "I can't read a phone book and I struggle to use automated systems, but the computer is easier to see, to read and to use."

Before taking part in Swift, Bob says he felt extremely isolated. The system has let him become more involved with the community through e-mail, chat rooms and even ordering shopping online. "It's like being given an extra arm. It's something that opens up choices and lets me keep my independence," he says.

It's an experience shared by Margaret Bell, who cares full-time for her daughter Karen. In addition to having Down's Syndrome, Karen has physical disabilities. "It might be four or five months that I can't even get out to do the shopping," says Margaret. "This system means I still have contact with people outside these four walls."

Like several of the participants, Margaret now has a computer of her own, and enjoys making Christmas cards and playing games. However, if there's anything the Derwentside residents are concerned about, it's the potential cost of internet access.

"I think this should be covered by some sort of grant. It's a big worry otherwise," Margaret says. With one in five UK pensioners living below the poverty line, cost is likely to be an issue for any e-government project. This is particularly true in ex-mining communities like Derwentside, where unemployment runs at twice the national average, 60 per cent of accommodation is council-owned, and 42 per cent of residents are retired through old age or ill-health.

The EU contributed 50 per cent of the upfront cost of building the network and provided initial set-top boxes and PCs. EU money also helped subsidise Telewest's move into Derwentside after the council failed to reach an agreement with BT to provide access to residents.

Since March, the council has assumed responsibility for additional development and installation costs of £200 per user. Derwentside generates the necessary finance by acting as an ISP and network hosting company for other councils and public sector bodies in the county. The council also provides internet access to local residents. "If we rolled it out to the maximum 14,000 households, we'd be able to charge around £12 a month, and subsidise the system so it stayed free for elderly people," Hodgson says. "We don't make fortunes, but it's enough to cover costs."

That should be enough to reassure Pat and Jean, neither of whom is ready to give up on their new hobby. "We go to a class for computer beginners at the daycare centre and we sit together and have a chat," says Pat. "That way, if one of us forgets something, the other remembers. We have a bit of a giggle."

Well, it certainly beats bingo.

Copyright, 2002, Independent Newspapers