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Don’t forget to click for help

Swati Sanyal Tarafdar | Updated on September 18, 2020 Published on September 18, 2020

Touch sensitive: The app had a detailed questionnaire, which has been designed for screening for memory and cognitive issues   -  ISTOCK.COM

Counsellors extend an online hand to people with dementia and Alzheimer’s, and their caregivers

* DemKonnect is a free app launched by the Nightingales Medical Trust (NMT), a Bengaluru-based not-for-profit body working to promote community-based support systems for the well-being of the elderly

* Via DemKonnect, commissioned by NMT and developed by an IT firm, counsellors give daily activity suggestions to families and caregivers

* Caregivers receive reminders on simple issues such as ensuring that the patients are kept hydrated

Irudaya Raj (75) enjoyed all the activities — physical and mental — that kept him busy on his regular visits to the Bengaluru day-care centre for the elderly. And he loved the bus ride back home every evening from the day ward.

But the centre has been shut since the spread of the novel coronavirus, leaving the retired engineer holed up at home. The isolation and restriction on movements made the Bengaluru resident, who’d been facing serious cognitive impairment issues for some years now, irritable and aggressive, his daughter Elisabeth Soumya says.

“He would scream and shout, and sometimes we had trouble controlling him,” she adds.

Help came in the shape of an app. DemKonnect is a free app launched by the Nightingales Medical Trust (NMT), a Bengaluru-based not-for-profit body working to promote community-based support systems for the well-being of the elderly. Launched in September 2018, the app gives people with dementia and Alzheimer’s their daily dose of stimulation, socialisation, encouragement and exercises to cope with a disease that already confines them socially.

Raj was a regular at the NMT’s centre. Now the NMT — like other chapters of the Alzheimer’s and Related Disorders Society of India (ARDSI) — has been organising helplines and meetings over video calling tools such as WhatsApp and Zoom for people who can no longer visit them. Via DemKonnect, commissioned by NMT and developed by an IT firm, counsellors give daily activity suggestions to families and caregivers.

The NMT team points out that the app reaches out to people not just in Bengaluru but elsewhere as well. It has certainly helped Ranjana Roy, a schoolteacher in Bongaon in West Bengal’s North 24-Parganas district. She had been concerned about her mother, who was forgetting and misplacing things, imagining crisis situations and behaving irritably. Someone then told her about DemKonnect, and she download the app from Google Playstore on an Android phone.

The app had a detailed questionnaire, which Roy and her mother answered. The questions, designed for screening oneself as well as others for memory and cognitive issues, ranged from ‘do you forget the name of a close associate’ and ‘do you forget important appointments or words during a conversation’ to ‘do you experience sudden disinterest in your household or professional work,’ and ‘does the person replace simple words with inappropriate ones’.

“I contacted an expert, who spoke to me and guided us via the app. We didn’t have to pay anything for this counselling service. And Ma mellowed down as she started following some of the instructions,” Roy tells BLink on the phone.

Roy and her family members take turns to help her mother do the exercises — such as scribbling with crayons, light movements with music, and blowing bubbles — the counsellors spell out on a daily basis. “The app has come to us as a blessing,” Roy says.

The lack of awareness about dementia and Alzheimer’s is an issue of concern. Early detection of symptoms can help prevent degeneration. DemKonnect, the NMT team stresses, helps people gauge a problem before they consult a psychiatrist.

“Anyone, anywhere can use it for free, for assessing cognitive impairment in a person suspected to be facing these issues; they can interact with the experts listed in the app for guidance. Also, for those with mild to moderate cognitive issues, we have an ‘Engage at home’ programme delivered over the app, which suggests activities and exercises family members can use to engage their loved ones,” says Sreeja Rani, who is in charge of the NMT’s dementia day-care centre.

Caregivers receive reminders on simple issues such as ensuring that the patients are kept hydrated, she adds. Cognitive impairment often affects taste buds, and those affected forget or refuse to drink water, as it is tasteless. This leads to dehydration and related health problems. Counsellors then suggest replacing water with lemonade, tender coconut water, fruit juices or simply sprucing up plain water with a little salt and sugar, or cumin powder.

“We also respond to emergency queries, such as when the family member stops taking food, or becomes very aggressive,” Rani adds.

The online sessions have been helping Raj. “There’s a Community feature on DemKonnect through which psychologists send us customised activity ideas that we can do each day with my dad — like separating pulses or dried pastas of different types from a mixed bowl, make a paper bag, cap containers of different sizes. Doing these makes him feel important,” Soumya says.

The weekly caregivers’ meeting, which is important for the mental health of caregivers and knowledge sharing among them, is also online now. “When we — families with a loved one with dementia or Alzheimer’s — were able to connect digitally, I came to know that we were not alone; most elderlyand day members at NMT were showing signs of aggression and worsened conditions due to the isolation and reduced stimulation,” she adds.

Since September is marked as World Alzheimer’s Month, there has been a spike in online events spreading awareness about people living with dementia. The Kolkata chapter of ARDSI has been especially active with open Zoom sessions. Nilanjana Maulik, national secretary and coordinator, ARDSI working group, says that the programmes are listed on the ARDSI Facebook pages and websites.

Connecting on a digital platform has also helped Yashoda Iyengar (90), who has been living in a residential facility of the NMT, stay connected with her family. “For the past six months, we were not allowed to visit or send food to mom; but NMT arranged a video chat whenever we requested,” her daughter Chandra Iyengar Sampath says. “Loneliness aggravates these conditions; staying digitally connected relieved us to a certain extent.”

Swati Sanyal Ttarafdar is a freelance journalist

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Published on September 18, 2020
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