Technology is all around us, from the phones in our pockets to the cars we drive, and it is becoming smarter all the time. The seemingly relentless march of progress opens up new possibilities, and challenges, for people with brain injury and their loved ones.
In this feature, we combine feedback from our online communities with the results of an innovative ‘Hot House’ event that supported the planning of an upcoming Headway brain injury rehabilitation hub in Suffolk, to examine the current and future technologies that could promote independence after brain injury.
Memory problems are a very common effect of brain injury, and an area in which technology can be a great help. While rehabilitation to improve memory function in the
long-term is notoriously difficult, people can learn strategies and use tools to help support memory.
Most of the population own a smartphone and carry it with them wherever they go, and the standard apps and features they offer can be ideal for supporting memory.
“My phone is my lifeline,” said Lisa-Marie Russell on our Facebook page. “I’ve got all my
appointments in my calendar. I set reminders on there that pop-up on the day with what I’ve got to do.”
Different platforms such as Android, iOS and Windows offer a lot of potential for synchronising calendars and alarms across different devices.
There are ways in which other simple features of smartphones can be helpful. RockinRic, from our HealthUnlocked community, shared a powerful way to support his wife’s memory:
He said: “My wife, who has memory impairment from an ABI, uses the camera on a smartphone to take pictures every day of what’s happened as it saves it in time and date order to allow an accurate record as a technique to look back on.”
Matthew Pallet, who relies heavily on Google Calendar to organise his life, cautions about over-use of technology, which can become confusing.
He said: “As with anything, though, this is a double-edged sword. I share a calendar with my partner and it’s bloody useful, but I often get overloaded by the mounting reminders and notifications.”
With the increasing availability of reliable voice assistants on our mobiles, many more people are able to easily use technology to support their independence.
TBI_Survivor over on HealthUnlocked shares how builtin voice recognition features make using digital reminders possible:
To be able to just speak to my phone and say, ‘OK Google, remind me at 2pm tomorrow to...’ helps me not lose track of things that would otherwise just disappear from my mind.
For others, voice technology has allowed them to achieve more than they ever thought possible after their brain injury.
Donna Siggers explains: “Voice recognition software allows me to write on bad days and likewise when Word speaks back to me it allows me to hear my mistakes. I had to re-learn how to
read/write after my head injury but became an author. Tech is definitely my friend!”
A built-in feature of modern mobile devices is a GPS tracker, which allows people’s locations to be accurately pinpointed.
In the early stages after her injury, RockinRic’s wife used this feature to support her rehab.
He said: “The physio team used the tracker function on a smartphone while she was learning to walk alone around the large grounds of the care home.”
With route-finding often being affected after brain injury, many respondents sang the praises of built-in apps such as Google Maps, Apple Maps and even standard sat-navs, which offer an invaluable way to avoid getting lost!
“Moved to a new city last year and a new flat this year,” said Alice Manning on Facebook.
When I’m tired my shortterm memory is particularly bad including directions, and all the tenements look pretty similar. Finding my way home is so much easier when I can essentially put my phone on sat nav.”
As well as the built-in apps, users were were also impressed with many paid-for apps, some of which users have come to rely on. We’re sharing a selection here, but you should always seek
advice from a trained professional such as an occupational therapist to make sure a particular app is right for you.
Teresa Piskator has found that a novel app called Tile, which tracks the location of special cards (tiles), has helped her to keep track of important items. The tile can be synced up with
her phone and when activated emits a beep to help her locate whatever she has attached it to.
She said: “The tiles keep track of car keys and my husband. He has one in his wallet in case we get separated, and a special one in my “survival bag” that also notifies me if I forgot to bring it with me.
For people with communication problems, there are numerous options to help. Carrie Beckwith-Fellows explains how she uses an app called Grid as her ‘Augmentative and Alternative Communication’ (AAC) device, supporting and replacing speech when needed.
She said: “It has a page that helps me understand and communicate my emotions, a visual timetable for the week, a page with all my food choices, as I don’t remember what food I can have to eat, and a page with activities and things to do as I forget.”
She also uses an innovative app called Cove. She said: “It is an amazing music diary app where you tap on the screen to make music loops as a way to journal how you feel. I find it excellent for those panic attack or anxiety moments, or sudden flashbacks.”
Michael McDonald shared a novel way to help his dad communicate using simple drawing apps on his phone.
He said: “Any of the draw apps are great for use when I’m with my dad. Post stroke left him with expressive aphasia. He is able to draw using his good hand for his requests and that’s ideal if you don’t have a pen and paper to hand.
Freya Perry had to give up her artist’s studio following her brain injury, however she is now taking the drawing apps to the next level. She said: “I bought a tablet and created art on it. My lifesaver.
You can read a comprehensive list of free and paid apps for people with acquired brain injury on the MyTherappy website, at www.my-therappy.co.uk.
‘Smart technology’ around the home is also likely to develop further to make it easier for people with a brain injury to live independently.
Heating systems can be set to track an individual’s preferred pattern, warming the house as they approach and turning the heating down to a comfortable level for sleeping at night.
Lights, showers and even toilets could increasingly be controlled by smart technology, adding new features to help people with varying types and degrees of disability.
All of these things can be linked together to create a ‘smart home’, with kitchen appliances, security systems and doors controlled by your smartphone, voice, facial recognition or
other input device.
One example is the use of new sensor-led systems in people’s home, which will offer a way to monitor welfare with a lower impact on their privacy.
The system can analyse ‘normal’ patterns of behaviour, such as when lights have been turned on and off, or if the kettle or others appliances have been used, even when people move
around into different rooms.
This offers an opportunity to raise an alert to a trusted person, such as a close relative or care agency, or calling for a welfare check when the normal routine changes.
The development of new technology brings with it new challenges for accessibility.
For people with sensory problems in their hands, tremor or other movement disorders, it can be difficult or even impossible to use touch-based devices.
For these people, the prospect of increased reliance on this technology is far from welcome.
There are other options for controlling this technology, however. Voice assistants are currently growing in popularity, and they can already integrate with many smart home
devices, allowing the control of multiple aspects of the home.
“Alexa, turn on the living room lights” or “Hey Google, turn the oven down to 180 degrees” are examples of commands that could increasingly become second nature for us as smart
homes become ever more integrated with our lives.
With brain injury affecting many people’s verbal communication skills, there is promise in a new wave of gesture control systems for smart homes. Allowing people to control the TV, adjust the heating and a wealth of other systems with pre-defined movements of the hands, opens up new possibilities and promotes independence for many people.
Of course, in some cases technology may not be available to everyone, and it remains important that other, more traditional support mechanisms are in place.
RockingRic highlights some of the challenges a reliance on technology can cause.
He said: “We have also experienced a down side to learning a new system or technology. When something doesn’t happen the way it should it can trigger an aggressive outburst, in some cases, leading to a resistance to embrace or try something new.”
It is also the case that over-reliance on technology, particularly in the early stages after brain injury, runs the risk of undermining rehabilitation. If in doubt, speak to a medical professional to help identify the most appropriate ways to use technology to support you.
The options for using technology to support people in rehabilitation and long-term care after brain injury were examined at a recent ‘Hot House’ event which took place at BT’s
research campus in Ipswich - a Hot House is an event in which you get a room full of experts to come together and work though a problem in a very limited timeframe.
The event was organised to support the development of Headway Suffolk’s exciting and ambitious plans for a new rehabilitation hub, along with long-term housing for clients.
The Professor Stephen Hawking Neuro Centre will include 24 homes in two buildings, where clients will have the opportunity to live as independently as possible. The unit is due to open in 2020.
The Hot House brought together experts from Headway and various industries to examine the options for incorporating innovative design and technology to support the unit’s residents.
Incorporating a tour of BT’s Advanced Research showcase, it fed in many ideas for how technology can be used in rehabilitation and accessible building design.
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