Digital Innovation delivered by CVSU

We have been commissioned by DCMS through Citizens Online to deploy this innovative and pioneering Digital Inclusion pilot in West Essex, which has two strands of delivery to it.

One is to develop a Digital Buddies network which will support the people in our community that are over 55, described as seniors and those living with a disability of any age, to increase their equality of access to digital in general. The aim being to increase their confidence in tech, to increase their independence in their home, to increase the connectivity and reduce their loneliness and to improve their overall wellbeing. We are using the ‘Learn My Way’ resource to train our Digital Buddies and support our Digital Learners, which has proved to be extremely successful, especially as it is a free resource.

The second strand is to develop four living smart homes across West Essex.

The living smart homes offered us quite a broad range of opportunity really. We see that they can be examples to other people in the community who will visit them and be exposed to what digital could bring to their lives. We have discovered a really important aspect is the ease of use, which really convinces people that it is something that is realistic to have in their homes. We also feel it’s important to help people to understand how to use digital to access the health service in the sense of using apps, and other resources i.e. the partnership the NHS have formed with Amazon recently, but also booking GP appointments and acquiring repeat prescriptions online and responding to other things like letters now, that you only really can respond to online, as well as connecting with people through the digital provisions like Skype and other Face time facilities to really help people see what digital can bring to their everyday lives in a simple way and improve it.

I feel the elderly, and when we say the elderly, we’re working with people 55 and above, the use of digital is being taken up by various age groups for various reasons and we need to understand this and tap into it. I feel within this cohort there’s a variety of people using it to varying degrees, but there’s still a lot of people that are either fearful of tech, have had a poor experience of it, or find it too complex. Because they’ve had to use passwords and other ways of connecting onto systems or that they’ve been the victims of some sort of fraud or identity infringement and therefore they’re reluctant to use it. But I think primarily for us, the group or groups, that are not accessing it, aren’t getting a quality of access and opportunity to what digital can bring to their everyday lives, are really the 55 and above. We are discovering this is a critical age for attitudinal conversion and adoptions, if this age group are going to make the most of this kit as they age and it can for example support longer term independence in the home or support other life challenges. But we are not saying that digital cannot be adopted by people of more senior years as we are finding through this pilot.

A further specific area we have been focusing on are those living with a disability of any age, although research is starting to show that this cohort is increasing in their use of digital, there are still a large proportion who do not see its relevance or are not being given the chance to access it or do not know where or who to go to find out about it.

Then there is the situation where some of the elderly cohort we meet through our own previous insight work have been shown to be using it, but may not be acknowledging or recognising it’s digital they are using every day in their lives. So it’s quite a complex picture that we’re facing as we have implemented and tried to engage the chosen groups selected for this pilot.

As well as running a minimum of two open house sessions a month in the Living Smart Homes for people in our locality who have been referred to us through professionals or other referral routes who feel they could benefit from that experience. We have started to film the Living Smart Homes in action and have placed these onto our Digital Boomers website with the aim of giving more people the opportunity to have a walkthrough of the house and with   commentary about the equipment, why it’s there, what benefits it could bring and actually hearing from the people who are using this equipment on an everyday basis and get their real honest views about it. But we are discovering that some of the kit we put in is not being used as much as others, and we might have to withdraw some, as we’re not trying to fill these homes with kit unnecessarily, and we are very careful on only installing equipment based on need and things that could benefit these people’s lives. So we’re having to be very attuned to that risk as almost ‘over selling’ the kit can run the risk of these cohort discarding it or not embracing it

In order to promote and publicise what we are and have been pioneering we have continued to provide regular updates through our websites, through films and through social media Community Facebook groups and Twitter to increase people’s knowledge of these homes and the benefits of them to the cohorts they are aimed at. Even though we have done this throughout the pilot so far it has still proved challenging to reach and engage with these groups concerning digital and what it could mean to them. We are also making use of local press, church magazines, Parish Council Clerks and local Radio.

I think we are being realistic and balanced in this approach because this is a common question use of digital to convert people to digital, in relation to almost the chicken and egg situation. Where if someone is not using digital, and you are trying to communicate through the portals of social media and websites, vlogs and blogs and all sorts of digital media. As stated we have been looking to try, and get into some published sorts of material, either in something like the Saga publications or certainly in local news media and I’d like to think that it might be picked up by bigger news media. We’re certainly speaking about it and have spoken about it on our local BBC Essex at the start of the pilot and again, we would like to try, and magnify the interest in the pilot moving forward. So we’ve have received some very good support from the Essex Digital Boomers team who are trying to amplify the information of the pilot’s findings, and the experiences we’re gaining through deploying this pilot on a weekly basis.

So any which way we can publicise the pilot, we are finding there is a real need to do so to maintain its profile and growth in its levels or growths of engagement. We’re also producing a newsletter for our Digital Buddies who are volunteers to support their engagement, but we’re trying all and every way to try, and promote and raise awareness of it to increase these volunteers, Digital Learners and those people the pilot is aimed at, to visit the Living Smart Homes.

I’m sure you’re aware, more and more businesses and companies are recognising that developing a range of equipment that can be installed easily into everyday homes, is something that they are really starting to recognise they should get involved in as the Digital Revolution expands. We’re working with a company called, but also HIVE are now promoting on mainstream news media, TV, radio about their new digital packages for Living Smart Homes. So what we are saying is if someone has decided that they are interested in trying to get some of the digital equipment installed in their home, is to do their research, but do consider basing their installations around Smart Speaker systems such as Amazon Alexa or Google Dots etc. There is a possibility that people who can’t afford to buy it themselves can approach their social services to look at personal health budget funding or also there may be some local funding from their environmental health teams who very often deploy the care line systems and equipment in that way and the disability facilities grants that are available with local councils as well. Many County Council Social Care Commissioners are undertaking strategic reviews of their digital provision and how they should future proof it moving forward, as well as how they can get it embedded into their social care and health provisions to support some of the key areas this DI Pilot is exploring. Essex County Council is certainly one of those authorities undertaking such a consultation/review.

I would describe what’s happening regarding digital in general as a ‘Digital Revolution’ and very similar to the ‘Agricultural Revolution’. Before our very eyes, there is a significant development and increased deployment of this kit, along with the recognition in all sorts of major policies and strategies of its benefits, that it’s something that needs to be blended with our health care and, our social services systems. It will not and should not replace the one to one face to face contact, that is quality contact, but in our opinion will compliment and support these areas of need in other ways. In addition, people who can access this equipment has increased greatly due the costs reducing and the equipment availability online. So if you were looking at buying an Amazon Echo Mini or a larger Amazon Echo device or Google Home Hub, the price of them isn’t too restrictive now. We’re looking currently at prices of between £80 to £100 for the larger ones and sort of £25 to £30 for the smaller ones. The challenge we are facing is promoting the benefits, ease of use, and where to go to access such kit. Once we have provided this information experientially to those connecting with our pilot they are generally surprised by the benefits etc.

The intuitive nature of Smart Speakers that you can attach other things to them are becoming very popular, but opportunities to use digital doesn’t just have to be that, you can have all sorts of devices that will just alert Android phones that you’ve opened the fridge, that the temperature in your house has gone down, and you have left your cooker on, got up out of your seat that day, and you haven’t got out of your bed, as well as other medical monitoring devices such as blood pressure devices monitors that are Bluetooth enabled. All of this information can be signalled in quite an easy way to your relative or someone who’s interested in your welfare.

Some of the equipment now is so advanced, that it can pick up trends in your individual movements within your home, so it’ll pick up your everyday movement on an average day, and then pick it up on an un-average day, or over a period of a week or two where you could be deteriorating if certain devices are installed, so that it could indicate that there is a trend that is in the negative. Because you could have devices that will monitor how much you drink. You have devices on how many times you switch your kettle on, open your fridge … As I say, the temperature in the room, your temperature, your movement, your activity. Even devices now, in regards to having a GPS device in your slippers if you’re struggling with dementia, and you go beyond the parameters of your home, you can be tracked and traced, found and looked after.

The intuitive nature of this equipment now is such that it will alert your nearest, dearest and people who care about you, or in the worst case, emergency services. If a trend changes, either action could be taken quicker to prevent it becoming a crisis, or action could be taken to alert you that something hasn’t happened today that should have. I also say that families living in a situation where your mother and father or just one of them lives where you were born, and you’ve moved to another part of the country, and you are trying to hold your job down, run the family, live your life there, but you’re also very concerned and very attuned into your parents’ welfare. I think that situation can cause additional stress and worry to anyone, but to know that you can look at a dashboard on your phone, and check various elements of your parents’ care, or changes in that that are going to cause you to alert community matrons, the relevant support mechanisms, to be deployed or check in, or a neighbour. It can reassure you, and act as a joint sort of preventative approach. So I think it’s an intelligent process, it’s something that can support families not having to over-reach themselves when they’re not so close to the ones they love, but be reassured in real time.

I think there is a great opportunity to provide alert systems that will alert neighbours, family, friends and other people caring for these individuals, but I think also that the vast range of equipment that can be installed will also bring something to them, because the Alexa device, or those sort of devices, you can speak to them and get your talking books, you can speak to them and get the music you love, you can speak to them and get the news updates, you can just speak to them to get a response. We’ve installed three of these devices now into people homes who were living with dementia, and the carers caring for them. We have received positive responses from them for various reasons as to what these digital devices brought to their lives. One reduced loneliness when he lost his partner to dementia, and others have kept the person living with dementia calm, because that particular music calms them down and reduces their agitation, enabling the carer to get on with things in the home they otherwise couldn’t.

Other options available are smart lights and smart bulbs. We’ve installed into our Living Smart Homes: smart bulbs into one woman’s house so that when her husband goes out, she can control the lights because she’s chair-bound, and she couldn’t before that. She just speaks to the device, and it switches the lights on and off, the same for her television and other apparatus. There’s a range of things, and we’re also combining smart bells with outside key safes so that carers can get in but speak to the person on their tablet, which is on a cradle by their chair, when they arrive at the premises and they can let them in remotely.

I think that’s a combination of really sophisticated monitoring … consensual monitoring equipment, both for relatives and carers, but also for the health sector. I’m very interested on how the dashboards that are now developing can link in with population health management, but also local Primary Care teams, knowing that quite complex patients can be monitored and they can get a report about that, but also that face-to-face interaction with a doctor from the hospital or the GP surgery, and other professionals is now possible, to develop that virtual outpatient relationship that has obvious benefits, and will certainly help with some situations.

Technology’s moved on so much, and I think this term “simplicity of use” is critical to us moving forward. I remember my father having a Kindle. He loves reading, but as soon as it got stuck, and he lost the web connection, he put it in a drawer, and didn’t use it any more. Since then, things have moved on so much that voice control, fingerprint control, iris recognition, even facial recognition, is now available, so that people using it who might be fearful about forgetting a password or having to put two or three passwords in, their dexterity being reduced, there’s even now screens that deal with what they call ‘cold and dry finger syndrome’ that the elderly tend to get.

Acer have developed a tablet that overcomes that, because tablets tend to work on a different process for us with fingers that aren’t dry and cold. So the sector and the technology is evolving to meet the needs of the group of people it could really serve well, and I must stress, I’m not looking at this as the answer to everything, but I think if blended in a care plan sort of situation as an option, digital could have significant benefits.

Clive Emmett


CVS Uttlesford

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