Page last updated at 00:31 GMT, Sunday, 4 April 2010 01:31 UK

Technology is helping unlock Ken's dementia memories

By Jane Elliott
Health reporter, BBC News

Ken and Liz Riddington
Liz tries to help Ken with his memories

Ken Riddington was a gifted TV producer who won a raft of awards and nominations for his work on series like Tenko, House Of Cards and A Very Peculiar Practice.

He loved TV, only retiring from his work at the BBC at the age of 75.

But three years ago he started to suffer from severe dementia and last year Ken, now 87, had to be admitted to a nursing home.

His wife, retired actress Liz, said that as his memories faded it became more difficult to for him to hold conversations.

Memory trigger

Experts agree that people with dementia can access memories through pictures or audio which trigger discussions about past experiences.

Ken benefited from using a new computer system, designed by UK researchers, which has been introduced into his London nursing home.

The Computer Interactive Reminiscence and Conversation Aid (CIRCA) system helps people with dementia by presenting carefully selected audio and video to "unlock" memories.

Those moments to be able to connect with him are priceless!
Liz Riddington

Liz said sports fan Ken had derived great enjoyment from the system.

"It's wonderful to see how responsive he is to the audio-visual material on the system.

"We were looking at the Festival of Britain events and he suddenly remembered some of those.

"He is quite interested in the Royal family, he is not a great royalist, but he enjoyed pictures of them on the balcony and the memories that raises."

She said being able to connect with her husband were "priceless".

There is also a Living in the Moment (LIM) system, which offers engaging, interactive activities that encourage skill and creativity such as easy games and vase painting.

Touch screen

The two systems are the product of 10 years of research by teams at the universities of St Andrews and Dundee.

Arlene Astell, senior lecturer at the University of St Andrews school of psychology said what made the computers so popular was that people needed no training or experience to use them and that there is no mouse and no keyboard.

Trafalgar Square pigeons
The Trafalgar Square pigeons prompted memories

"They are just operated by touching the screen," she said.

"The most common form of dementia makes it difficult for people to lean new things, so we made this so that anyone could use it."

Dr Astell said they had a broad range of clips, still images and films that could apply to anyone.

"We had one Glaswegian gentleman, in a care home in Oxfordshire, who saw a picture of Trafalgar Square with pigeons in it.

"He started telling the care giver, who was from the Philippines, about breeding homing pigeons.

"He then told her how he bred budgies and how he had one budgie which would open the cage and walk along his cat's whiskers - all that came from a photo of Trafalgar Square.

"Twenty other people could look at that photo and have different recollections.

"Our research found that we could very successfully use generic content to stimulate people's memories.

"Items such as a photograph of a beach have an advantage over personal content such as family pictures and videos which have a right answer, for example, a family holiday at a particular place in a particular year.

"It can be upsetting for people with dementia and their families if they cannot remember the details of family memorabilia.

"However, there are no right answers with generic items and whatever story people tell is the right one."

Powerful therapy

The system is already being rolled out in a group of care homes and the designers are hopeful others will also use it.

Andrew Chidgey, of the Alzheimer's Society, said: "Reminiscence therapy is a powerful way of helping empower people with dementia.

"It is one of a number of approaches that can stimulate communication and it may enable people to recall moments from their past with unexpected clarity.

Circa Screen
Users find the screen easy to use

"Multimedia programmes that use photos, music and film to evoke memories can certainly have a role to play in this technique. One in three people over 65 will die with dementia. It is vital we explore all options of how we can enable people to live well with the condition."

Cecelia Owusu, Ken's carer at Hawthorn Green care home in London, said that using the system had also enriched experiences for staff.

"Life in a home follows a daily routine, but CIRCA has added a new dimension to my relationship with Ken.

"He often teaches me about things I don't know much about, like old steam trains, classic movies and all time sports heroes."

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