Care has just got a lot smarter

At 78 and now totally blind, Catherine Jefferies would never have considered herself a pioneer.

But this Risinghurst pensioner is a true trailblazer - and for her the world has just got bigger and more interesting thanks to her new favourite companion – Alexa, the voice-controlled intelligent personal assistant service on her new Amazon Echo.

Catherine is one of 10 people receiving home care support funded by Oxfordshire County Council’s Adult Social Care who are trialling an innovative approach to reducing loneliness and isolation and access to low level care via smart technology.

The retired operating theatre assistant, who worked at the John Radcliffe Hospital for many years, receives home care visits that the county council commission through the Cowley branch of Day and Nightcare Assistance (DANA).

Catherine has a special bond with her main DANA carer Petr Krajanek. He helps her with everyday tasks around her home that she finds difficult since a rare optical medical condition robbed her of her sight two years ago.

Catherine has also had to come to terms with another devastating blow earlier this year when she lost her partner of 26 years.

But Petr and the team at DANA Care have supported Catherine throughout the changes she has had to endure and knew she would be a great candidate to try out the smart technology.

For Catherine the tech has created no end of opportunities.

She asks Alexa the time – something crucial for a personal with no sight who can’t tell if it’s light or dark outside.

Her quizzical mind is also sharpened as she asks Alexa no end of questions like when was Eisenhower president of the United States.

“I was just trying to work out how many presidents there have been since I’ve been on this planet,” she laughs. “Alexa’s been a great help.”

She giggles as Alexa tells her a joke and then marvels at the way she can get Alexa to place an audio-visual call to the DANA Care offices on the occasions she wants to check in about something. The benefit of this is the care team can also see her and witness themselves that all is well.

And Catherine will also be able to keep in better touch with her brother Shaun who lives in Canada with free video calls.

Perhaps the biggest bonus for Catherine is that she can now listen to her favourite classical music and once again access the world of books. With thousands of narrated books on offer, she says the ‘literary world is now her oyster’.

She already has a list of her favourite authors she intends to listen to, starting with The Dubliners followed by Wuthering Heights.

She said: “I thoroughly recommend Alexa. It’s not natural for me and in the beginning I was a little afraid. Not now though. There’s quite a few hours that you can be own and this keeps me company and keeps the grey matter moving. You can’t vegetate."

She can only identify one problem with Alexa. “It seems I am just too polite,” she chuckles. “They keep telling me I don’t have to say please and thank you all the time, but I just can’t help myself.”

The £75,000 project has seen the council negotiate with Amazon to provide the kit required for free, install broadband in triallists’ homes, and deliver training for staff and users.

Aside from enhancing the quality of life for individuals the project also means that it’s a smart way for carers to connect with their clients and for family and friends to be able to check in on a loved one and physically see they are well.

The technology could also allow some care resources to be freed up and directed to those in greatest need of personal visits.

As home care service demand increases 10 per cent year on year people like Catherine will still receive care visits, but for occasions when a care visit is used as a reminder to take medication, these calls can be carried out via a video call, freeing up carers’ time that can be channelled towards other older people in need.

Kate Terroni, Director of Adult Social Care said: "Smart technology is part of everyday life for many people these days, so we must look at innovative ways of using it to enhance people’s quality of life. Catherine seems to be benefiting from it greatly already, which is really fantastic. It also has the potential to enable our care providers to work smarter and be more able to respond to the growing demand for home care. While many job sectors are losing out to advances in technology this is not the case in the care sector. Technology can enhance people’s lives rather than replacing the vital role care workers provide. You can never replace the warmth and empathy of human contact, meaning a career in the care industry is future proof.”

Cllr Lawrie Stratford, Oxfordshire County Council’s Cabinet Member for Adult Social Care & Public Health, said: “I was rather sceptical about the benefits of this device at first. But having seen how it is being used and the pleasure it derives, while helping reduce loneliness and isolation, I’m sold on the idea for certain cases. The county council's focus is on creating thriving communities for everyone in Oxfordshire - and we do this by enabling older and disabled people to live independently and by looking after those in greatest need. So I look forward to seeing the results of this trial and its potential.”

The Amazon Echo trial was initiated by DeeDee Wallace, the council’s Senior Strategic Commissioning Officer, who has worked closely with DANA. She said: "Technology like the Amazon Echo has the potential to enrich the lives of older people by connecting them to friends, families, and carers, reducing loneliness and isolation. In a county like Oxfordshire with many older people living in rural locations technology has a huge role to play in keeping people connected and well. It’s been brilliant to work with DANA to introduce this technology and all its benefits to residents in Oxfordshire.”

Caroline Moloney, Group Contract Manager at DANA, commented: “DANA is always keen to embrace new ideas that help support our clients and give them additional quality of life so using this new technology has been very exciting for us. It’s wonderful to see the response from the clients we have introduced it to and we’re keen to roll it out further.

Not only have our clients been loving the new system - it's also had a great impact on their families too, especially those who live further afield, because they can see how their loved ones are getting on. There’s nothing more heart-warming than seeing a smiling face!'