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Yes, television can play a positive role in care homes

Care home televisions blaring all day long can be distressing, but research suggests TV is comforting and stimulating too

When she was a senior nurse working with older people, June Andrews (inadvertently) caused a patient to cry.

It was a geriatric hospital, and I arrived one evening to find an old woman in tears, explains the independent dementia consultant and author.

When I asked what was wrong, it turned out she was desperate to watch Coronation Street, but she told me that they werent allowed to have the television on because that June Andrews is coming, and she doesnt like it.

I realised then that you have to be careful about how you communicate your messages.

Until recently head of the Dementia Services Development Centre (DSDC) at the University of Stirling, Professor Andrews admits that she had spoken to staff about the inappropriate use of television with residents.

I had walked into the day room and noticed that the television was on, and

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When she was a senior nurse working with older people, June Andrews (inadvertently) caused a patient to cry.

‘It was a geriatric hospital, and I arrived one evening to find an old woman in tears,’ explains the independent dementia consultant and author.

‘When I asked what was wrong, it turned out she was desperate to watch Coronation Street, but she told me that they weren’t allowed to have the television on “because that June Andrews is coming, and she doesn’t like it”.

‘I realised then that you have to be careful about how you communicate your messages.’

Until recently head of the Dementia Services Development Centre (DSDC) at the University of Stirling, Professor Andrews admits that she had spoken to staff about the inappropriate use of television with residents.

‘I had walked into the day room and noticed that the television was on, and it was something like an Open University maths programme. I looked round at the older people and none of them was the slightest bit interested.

‘But that did not mean I was against having the television on; I didn’t want people to be trapped in front of programmes in which they had no interest.’

Thirty years on and Professor Andrews, author of Dementia: the One-stop Guide, has been turning her attention to the television again.

The way we watch TV is changing… care homes will have to adapt to this

The emeritus professor who is now working strategically to support the Dementia Services Development Trust, the charity that created the DSDC, has recently published a paper looking at research into whether television is, indeed, a source of bad care or if it can be a useful eye on the world, particularly for older people in care homes. What she found was illuminating.

‘It got me thinking about television as an aspect of dementia care,’ she explains. ‘The literature in this area suggests there are steps care homes can take to make sure that television is positive for older people and contributes to their care.

‘Television has long been demonised as an ‘electronic babysitter’, she adds. ‘But used thoughtfully, it has a real part to play.’

Her review quotes research from Sweden’s Lund University, based on the views of older people in nursing home settings. It found that television helps to structure daily life, satisfying older people’s needs for reflection, contemplation and remaining socially integrated (Ostlund 2010). It also cites a Dutch study that shows television viewing can help older people adapt to new circumstances in periods of loss (Van der Goot et al 2012).

This comes as no surprise to Mike Heard, who manages the North Merchiston Care Home in Edinburgh, where most of the residents are in their eighties and nineties – many with dementia.

Are you making assumptions about which television progammes will suit a person with dementia? Bland programming might be just as agitating and disturbing as an action film, because boredom can cause distress.

Do staff understand the benefits of television or are they using it as an ‘electronic babysitter’? Care workers need to sit with residents when they watch TV so that they can comment on the programmes and be a stimulus for interaction and conversation. Staff may need training in this and in how to find out what people enjoy watching. Many older people are stuck in front of old films, on the assumption that they ‘live in the past’.

Have you provided user-friendly remote controls? Is hearing aid technology available that means the TV can be on at a bearable volume level? Headphones work well, but older people may not be used to them, so get advice from Action on Hearing Loss at tinyurl.com/hpd94bk.

Are you using TV to support healthy ageing? Healthy ageing includes exposure to new ideas, art and culture. There are music and movement programmes that can help people exercise and have fun.

Is it possible to watch TV in private as well as in a communal area? It is fun to watch tennis in a crowd, but only if you enjoy tennis. A TV in the resident’s room, with a package that is selected to suit an individual’s preference is a great benefit.

Visit tinyurl.com/j2utvqq for more information

‘When I first trained as a mental health nurse, unfortunately the television would often go on as soon as people got up, and they would spend many hours watching it. But here, on a day-to-day basis, the TV is often not switched on, and when it is on, staff will be monitoring it to make sure people actually want to watch what is on.

‘We find that although people want to come together and gather round the TV for things like royal events and the rugby, if they want to watch something individually, then they will do it in their own rooms. It is all about what each person wants to do.’

In Mr Heard’s experience, TV can have a positive effect on some people with advanced dementia, if viewing is organised.

‘We get a lot of husbands and wives coming to visit, and sometimes they’ll sit in the resident’s room watching a programme they used to enjoy, holding hands.’

Increasingly, he notices that residents are embracing newer forms of technology.

‘We have a computer class and it is always packed,’ he says. ‘People like using Skype to talk to their relatives. We also have a laptop and use things such as YouTube for reminiscences.’

As ‘digital natives’ age, there will be more residents bringing their own tablets and laptops into care homes, he adds.

Professor Andrews said that the way we watch television is changing – and that care homes will have to adapt to this.

Picture credit: Getty

‘There are three of us in our house. Sometimes we can be sitting looking at our iPads, each of us wearing headphones. We are together, but watching different programmes. It has become more individualised.’

At the care home, that is not the situation yet, says Mr Heard, although he believes it is not far away.

‘A lot of it is common sense really, and about taking a person-centred approach. That is as true of television and other technologies as it is about all other aspects of care’.

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