Present tense, past imperfect

24th October 2003 at 01:00
People with Alzheimer's disease often suffer from anxiety and memory loss, but some are finding that information technology can ease the burden, writes Andrew Mourant

Roger's memory grows increasingly fragmented as Alzheimer's disease tightens its grip. As time goes by, it becomes more of a struggle to recall the experiences of his younger days when his mind was still in full working order and he thrived in his career as a graphic designer.

Two years elapsed between the first manifestations of his Alzheimer's and its diagnosis by medics. Roger, now in his 50s, bears his fate with equanimity, although he is still angry about the small fortune he spent on private consultations. He remembers the experts he encountered who "were so horrible".

The bright spots in his life often come these days during his thrice-weekly trips to a day centre in Tunbridge Wells, which is run by the west Kent branch of the Alzheimer's Society.

There, for the past two years, the opportunity to use computers has given Roger and other sufferers a brand new window on to a shrinking world.

In their work at the centre, they have found that touch-screen technology offers a multitude of possibilities. Besides creating pictures and doing jig-saws, some participants have learnt to use the internet and send emails. Computers, it seems, can help to calm even the most agitated mind.

While many there had never before been exposed to information technology, for Roger it was something of a reconnection to his former world. Since he started learning new IT skills, he has helped to design a website for the day centre as well as a leaflet explaining the various benefits of the computer project.

In his youth, Roger was once lead singer in a semi-professional band, The Ides of March. Another former member has posted a picture of the group in its heyday on the branch website. It offers an enduring image of his former life.

He was helped on the website project by Jack, who once worked in the building trade and who, like Roger, shows enormous forbearance about his lot. "I tell people I'm going to the nut-house I there's a lot of a laughter here," he says.

Jack's sessions coincide with Roger's and although Jack was a novice in IT, the pair have worked steadily on the computer together.

"I've sent emails to my sister in Canada," he says. "I'm slow to get started and still need help as I go along. But if the project can help anybody, then it's a good thing."

Indeed, few sufferers of Alzheimer's have had the same opportunities as those in west Kent. This is a pioneering scheme, which has been running for two years but is now urgently in need of further funding.

While the project has yet to be assessed formally, branch co-ordinator Tina Stirling believes that the considerable benefits to these learners of working together on computers are beyond doubt.

Ms Stirling first launched the project after making a successful bid to the Alzheimer's Society, which provided funding for three projects that focused on living with dementia.

"All 250 branches of the Alzheimer's Society were asked to submit an idea," she says. "Ours created huge interest - some residential homes and day centres are now thinking of setting up something similar." In fact, the idea for the project evolved by chance. One regular at the day centre wanted to write to the council about a dangerous crossroads in the local area; another wanted to design a greeting card. After watching members of staff using computers in their daily business, several visitors said they wanted to have a go themselves.

Ms Stirling had seen some of the software which head-injury victims used at another project run by another local charity called Compaid.

"We didn't know what would work - in the beginning it was trial and error," she says.

Art work soon emerged as a favourite, offering visible evidence of time well spent. Some of the best work has been used on greetings cards and a calendar which earn money for the branch.

Much of the funding - pound;25,000 a year - pays for project co-ordinator Angie Solanky.

Ms Solanky says: "We thought there'd be a lot of anxieties among people about using a computer for the first time, but the ones who worried most were those who had used them before."

For many, the ITwork can be remarkably soothing - especially as anxiety is a typical characteristic of Alzheimer's.

"One man would constantly wander around checking his jacket pocket," says Angie.

"But when he came to draw pictures on the screen, he was mesmerised."

Creating patterns of stars and circles also comforts Evelyn, who struggles to communicate verbally now that her Alzheimer's has reached an advanced stage.

Irene, a former shorthand typist, has been helped to recreate parts of her life, recalling milestones such as her wedding and a flight on Concorde, keying in text herself and scanning images from her family photo album.

"It has brought back some memories," she says.

Every month, Roger and Jack help to co-ordinate the thoughts of fellow sufferers and post these on the branch website. These feature a "predicament of the month", where the voices of frustrated sufferers resound. On the "forgetfulness" link, one contributor complains that "other people think you're going mad by the way you're acting". Under "driving", another explains that having to give up "feels like the end of the world I like your independence has been taken away".

But the site's humour has offered much solace to Chip Gerber, a 57-year-old American who had Alzheimer's diagnosed in 1997. He stumbled across the website while surfing the net back in his Florida home, then emailed.

"Things aren't as funny as they used to be, but life goes on," he says.

"There's something about laughter - it's sort of like medicine to me. Your site is great."

For more details see the website:

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