May 15, 2011

UK: Isolated? Here's help for the elderly to stay in touch

LONDON, England / The Daily Mail / Health / May 14, 2011

Isolated? Not now that I've got MAAVIS:

Actress Sylvia Syms logs on to a new service
that helps the elderly to stay in touch

By Nikki Murfitt

As a busy working actress, emails have become a part of daily life for Sylvia Syms. If only she knew how to check them. Indeed, the 77-year-old star of movie classics Ice Cold In Alex and The Tamarind Seed confesses she kept her computer locked in the study for two years after buying it because she was too terrified to use it.

Hers is a familiar story of pensioners up and down the country. For while the internet is playing an increasingly important role in our society, figures released by the charity Age UK reveal that six million people over the age of 65 have never been online. As a result they are missing out on technological advances that could help improve their health and fight the isolation of ageing that leads to mental decline.

Sylvia, who will soon be back on our TV screens in a six-part BBC dramatisation of Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie detective series, admits that her actress daughter Beatie Edney, 48, browbeat her into buying a computer six years ago.

Connected: Sylvia can now easily keep in touch with
family and friends thanks to her new computer service

To older people, the idea of computers is frightening,’ says Sylvia. ‘We haven’t grown up with them and we’re intimidated by them. People are constantly asking if they can email me this and that, and I have started to realise that not knowing how to use the internet is like not being on the telephone. Even my doctor says life would be easier if I’d email my repeat prescription requests. It’s just how people communicate these days.’

Now Sylvia hopes that a new computer system, developed by the University of Sheffield, will not only help pensioners get to grips with technology, but also let them reap a variety of health benefits – keeping their minds active and leaving them feeling less isolated.

The £200,000 project, MAAVIS (Managed Access To Audio Visual And Information Services), was installed in nine care homes over a six-month trial period in Yorkshire and is now free to download to your PC.

It requires a touch screen to allow users to manoeuvre easily around the software, giving access to social network sites, online videos and music.

It also gives access to the video-conference service Skype, which allows users to see and speak to relatives for free via the internet, and is increasingly being used by pharmacists, psychiatrists and even GPs to consult with patients.

And, as the financial cuts put pressure on NHS services, the technology uses freely downloadable software that has the potential to relieve the strain on care-home assistants by providing ready-made activities for their elderly residents – everything from bingo to shopping.

Dr Peter Cudd, who began developing MAAVIS in 2006, says: ‘The vast majority of care-home managers are not IT-trained so we had to keep it simple. Each user can have a memory stick which costs less than £10 and on that they can keep photos, newspapers, songs, whatever it is that interests them. Each time they want to use the computer, they can just plug it in and have their own personal folders set up specifically for them.

‘MAAVIS opens up lots of opportunities for social interaction, but it also has more specific health benefits. People with dementia retain their language skills the longest so they can access songs or talk to family. They can still interact. For stroke victims we can put speech-therapy exercises on to their programme so they are backing up the work of the speech therapist to speed their recovery.’

Dr Cudd believes the software could be adapted not just for the elderly but also for physically and mentally disabled children, because its touch screen would allow more independence, and from an earlier age, than a conventional keyboard.

Sylvia (pictured here in the fifties), one of Age UK’s celebrity patrons, says: ‘I don’t like computers because I never learned to type. I think I can write a letter faster. I’m hopeless at downloading anything or finding a folder and I find the process very frustrating.

‘Many of the icons on my computer are too small and it is off-putting. With MAAVIS I can see the folders without my glasses. It’s like being in front of a TV screen – it’s clear and simple to use. One of the worst things about getting older is that you feel isolated and out-of-touch, but sending an email or seeing your family via Skype is hugely comforting.’

Age UK’s Helena Herklots agrees. ‘Older people see using a computer as the domain of the young, but it’s never too late to learn. One of the key contributors to mental decline in older age is social isolation, and the internet provides a fantastic way of staying in touch with loved ones who can be far away. And getting online will give access to a multitude of health services, such as chemists.’

Sylvia says: ‘I’m now online all the time with MAAVIS. Any young person, care-home worker or family member can help download the software and it is simple to use.’

To download MAAVIS, go to 
For help to get online, call Age UK on 0800 169 65 65

Copyright Associated Newspapers Ltd