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How technology can help seniors improve cognition and memory

The pandemic has brought about big changes in how the elderly engage with smartphones and the internet, and it is helping them in unexpected ways

Communication is not the only benefit of smartphones for seniors  (Marcus Aurelius/Pexels)

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Septuagenarian Mohona Sikdar was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease four years ago. Following her doctor’s advice, she would go for regular walks and follow a simple exercise routine at her neighbourhood park. But covid acted as a disruptor. “My son did not let me go out for fear of contracting the infection. I was cooped up at home. He got me a treadmill last year, but it’s not the same thing as walking outside and meeting people,” rues the Vasant Kunj resident from Delhi.

Sensing that his mother was unmotivated to exercise at home, Sikdar’s son recently got her a fitness band. It helps her monitor her basic health parameters and also encourages her to exercise regularly even when cooped up at home. Sikdar realises the advantages of the wearable device and is quite taken up with the way it tracks her daily health.

Also read: Senior citizens log into the world of online dating

While many see digital technology as a challenge to be conquered, some like Sikdar view it as a personal goal. Yet others view digital technology as a collective endeavour, as it also helps to foster important interactions with others. During the pandemic, it was proven that the elderly can benefit most from the use of the internet to feel connected and keep loneliness at bay. At the same time, a smartphone can help keep cognitive functions sharp.

Delhi-based senior-care specialist Archana Madaan says, “Elders need as much attention as kids. Though Covid has markedly receded, there are fresh fears of a new wave in June. Seniors with co-morbidities are still mostly stuck at home and with temperatures soaring, they are more likely to be home-bound. This is not only affecting their physical health, but also mental wellbeing. It can lead to depression and other related issues.”

Last year, the Dignity Foundation—an NGO dealing with senior citizens across metros in India—moved its programmes online to help seniors stuck at home due to coronavirus restrictions. By connecting online through Zoom, seniors across its six centres at Mumbai, Pune, Kolkata, Bengaluru, Chennai and Delhi take part in activities such as quizzes, music and also reading.

Activities such as quizzes, as undertaken by the Dignity Foundation, help in cognitive training and thanks to an ageing population, cognitive training has seen a surge in popularity in recent years. Innovative apps such as CogniFit Brain Fitness are growing in popularity among seniors as they have proven cognitive health benefits. The app tracks and charts the user’s progress and follows up on areas that need improvement.

Likewise, Dakim BrainFitness uses memory games to help users exercise their cognitive ability. “With my mother stuck at home, the best way to keep her brain cells active and working was to get her hooked on to games that aid cognitive health. Today she uses MyBrainTrainer, touted as the ‘world’s first and best virtual mental gymnasium’. It helps users strengthen their minds through challenging exercises,” says journalist Alok, Sikdar’s son.

While mobile phone manufacturers are coming up with smartphones that are easier to use for seniors... these are few and far between – and often priced higher than regular smartphone models

According to a 2018 report by HelpAge India, the country’s elderly population is expected to increase to 12.5% and 20% by 2026 and 2050 respectively. With advancements in medical science, life expectancy is expected to increase from 67.5 in 2015 to 75.9 over the next three decades. This prompts an urgent need to create a digital infrastructure that supports seniors. And contrary to general belief, this generation of senior citizens is not afraid of change.

Over the years they have adapted to new and emerging perspectives, social changes, opinions and thoughts. They grew up in a different age and time; still, they are raring to embrace change for the future. Technology can be a much-needed game-changer for them, especially the empty-nesters who are now suddenly living alone with kids settled or studying in different corners of the world.

Mumbai-based neuro-physician Sumitra K Bijapurkar says, “Computer-based or smartphone-based brain-fitness exercises and social connectivity can help people relearn practical life lessons and keep loneliness at bay. But there is still an awareness gap in India. There is a set belief that computers and smartphones are only for kids. We fail to realise that they can help seniors regain their cognitive abilities and drive away depression that crops up when one feels isolated. It’s time we took to technology as a leveller to make life comfortable for senior citizens.”

She suggests the recent viral word game Wordle where you need to guess the right word in five or six attempts to keep the brain cells active. There are also games such as SharpBrains that comprises 25 different brain teasers and includes optical illusions; Tetris, a competitive game that serves the dual purpose of entertainment and also trains the brain; the online game Memozor, which boasts 24 versions of a matching card game and is great for testing memory, as well as other popular apps like Lumosity, Elevate Brain Training and NeuroNation which provide fun and engaging exercises and activities to enhance attention, perception, comprehension, memory and other cognitive skills.

Besides, there are the classics such as Solitaire, Sudoku and, of course, Crossword, which can be played both on a screen and off it.

But more than awareness, what is needed is access to technology. “Not many in India have access to the kind of technology. True, urban centres have it better. But what about Tier II and Tier III cities? In most of these places, even a simple smartphone is not available for seniors,” says Madaan. “Technology should be designed for older people with the right aim—based on their experiences. Rather than appear as an alien concept, it should offer continuity. Familiar commands, buttons, screens, and add-ons can make new digital devices more accessible to seniors. This will help foster social connections which in turn will boost independence and confidence.”

Rather than stressing the potential benefits of mastering technology, emphasis should be on the importance of being connected and socially involved. We should also have apt customer service to help seniors embrace technology, says Madaan.

While mobile phone manufacturers are coming up with smartphones that are easier to use for seniors, boasting features such as large screens that can display magnified content, devices that can get significantly loud, and specialised features such as emergency shortcuts and simplified user interfaces, these are few and far between – and often priced higher than regular smartphone models.

Bijapurkar agrees with Madaan when she says, “We need a broader policy to address the issue. This is now a national problem. We are a country of senior citizens and we need policies that would aid them. One can’t keep relying on the age-old system of joint families taking care of the elderly. We have to make a collective effort.”

Also read: Video gaming: These senior gamers show that age is just a number

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