Global IT networks provide sound vitamins to keep elderly healthy and alert

Leicester 09 March 2001A project funded under the eContent section of the Information Society programme of the European Commission's Fifth Framework is bringing the digital world to the elderly to offer the stimulation they need in order to keep healthy, alert, and in touch with the outside world. The project, "Sound vitamins for the elderly", will use information technology (IT) speech and music channels in an environmental system, which requires speech prompts, to provide older people with the required stimulation. The project involves researchers from the University of Leicester in the UK, and Audio Riders, a Finnish information technology company, as well as two care homes situated in Finland and the United Kingdom.

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The principal objective of the project is to run a field trial of the audio stimulation system already developed by Audio Riders (AR) in the UK and Finland. Academic research has shown that the physical and mental deterioration associated with old age can be greatly reduced by stimulation from carers. Elderly users or care home staff will be able to choose from six channels featuring, for example, current affairs, spiritual content, gentle exercise programmes, and prompts for reminiscence or group discussion. The channels will promote the different aspects of physical, psychological, and cognitive health.

The system already exists in Finnish, and will also be prepared in English, Swedish, and Hindi. Leicester indeed has a large Hindi speaking community. If the system is to be marketable on a pan-European basis, availability in different languages is essential. The inclusion of a Hindi language facility will assess the marketability of the product outside Europe and North America. Finnish, English, and English-Asian cultures also possess very different preferences in terms of leisure activities. Because the users are likely to prefer different channels, various language groups have to achieve gains in all sorts of areas. This will indicate the effectiveness of the system in several languages, and how the channel content should be varied cross-culturally in subsequent commercial exploitation.

Providing stimulation via information technology is significantly cheaper than the conventional means of one-to-one attention by care staff. The cost-effectiveness and viability of the AR system to business is determined by whether its cost is outweighed by the cost of providing the same amount of environmental enrichment to the same number of elderly people with care home staff alone. This cost-effective means of providing these techniques is particularly timely in the light of widespread concern about the world's ageing population. The ever-increasing burden of caring for a growing elderly population is compromising the economies of many countries.

The product will also have ethical advantages. At present it is predominantly the young and wealthy population who receives the benefits of information technology. This project identifies a way in which the elderly too may benefit from the digital revolution. In each care home taking part in the study, half of the residents will be provided with the AR system. Participants' physical, cognitive, and social psychological well-being will be assessed after three, six and nine months. Interviews will also be carried out in order to provide more detailed impressions.

At present, it is intended to seek further funding following the completion of this project. In this further research, the AR system will be withdrawn from half of those participants who had access to the system, effectively acting as a control group. Additional research will then determine the duration for which the benefits attributable to the AR system can persist, relative to the participants who retain access to the system. This will provide information on whether the system needs to be used permanently, or if it can produce the same level of benefits if used for limited periods only. For those of you who want more details about the project, please contact Dr. Adrian North from the Department of Psychology at the University of Leicester.


Leslie Versweyveld

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