It's never too late

August 1, 2010 1:35:00 AM

Jan Swoope - [email protected]


It''s early morning, and Jack Brett is on his way to breakfast at Trinity Personal Care Center in Columbus. But first, the 83-year-young resident has an important stop to make at the center''s unique computer center. 


"The first thing I do is hit the morning papers, usually to find out how the Braves did the night before, because I usually go to bed before they do," he laughs. "My table is a bunch of baseball nuts, and if I''m going to talk at all, I''ve got to keep up." 


Whether following his beloved Braves or the gridiron exploits of the SEC, the sports-minded octogenarian and his fellow residents could as easily decide to visit Paris or Rome before lunch, or relive classic radio programs like "The Shadow" and "Abbot and Costello." They could play Yahtzee, have Bible Study, view World War II news reels or listen to big band music on the cyber jukebox -- all with a few touches of a finger on a screen.  


Technology has the potential to change the lives of aged-care residents. But for some who may still remember when few households had a television set, and staying in touch meant party-line telephones and long-traveling letters, the computer can be an intimidating wonder. Aside from the technology itself, motor-function, sight and tremor issues may affect the traditional computing experience. 






At least one system design company has lessened the challenges. High tech meets easy touch in the It''s Never Too Late (IN2L) computers available to Trinity residents. Other than one facility in Jackson, they are the only IN2L''s in Mississippi. The Colorado-based company, founded in 1999, specializes in connecting older adults to the wider world through picture-based, touch screen platforms that enable almost anyone to use a personal computer, even those with dementia. 


Larger keyboards, adaptive mice, noise cancellation headphones and wheelchair-accessible workstations make it easier for the elder population. The computers are used effectively in physical therapy, too.  


"We have four IN2L computers here," said Joni Seitz, director of public relations and marketing at Trinity. "They''re a wonderful, interactive addition. They keep residents in contact with families who want to send them e-mails and videos ... and it''s extremely beneficial because of the therapeutic aspect." 




Showing the way 


Brenda Forcey is activities director for residents of Trinity Personal Care. Debra Thompson (known as Biddy) is the activities director for those in Trinity Healthcare. Both women enjoy introducing residents to the cyber world. The IN2L units smooth the process. The women point out the large keypad and touch screen, and the computer platform itself. At a touch, it adjusts heights to accommodate wheelchairs, or even someone who prefers to stand. 


Each resident can have a home or profile page made, filled with photos of family, or perhaps a beloved homeplace. "We can put video of someone''s grandchildren''s birthday parties on there, for example," said Forcey. The personal connection with family, who may live far away, helps seniors stay engaged and can help combat feelings of loneliness or isolation.  


Because the unit is on wheels, it can be readily rolled into the large living room, where residents gather. There they play popular games like "Deal or No Deal," or even sing karaoke. "There''s something for everybody," said Thompson.  


World travel is an entertaining option. One of IN2L''s applications allows users to take virtual trips to exciting destinations around the world. "After our group takes a tour of London, we might serve tea and crumpets," Seitz said. An afternoon''s jaunt to Paris might call for crepes afterward. 


"You can even touch on a building in New Orleans (for example) and go right to it," marveled Brett. 




Therapeutic use 


In the Physical Therapy Room, Bob Colvin of Columbus is taking a virtual bike ride on a mountain road, another IN2L program. The system''s most popular physical therapy options include flight, bike and driving simulations.  


"I''ve got a sharp curve coming up ahead," Colvin smiles, pedaling rhythmically with his hands instead of his feet. The interactive ride can be done either way, depending on the goal of the particular therapy. For this session, Rehabilitation Director Casey Porter wants Colvin, who is recuperating after a stroke, to stand, increasing stamina and stability. 


"If I asked someone to stand and let me know when they''re getting tired, it wouldn''t be two minutes before they''d feel they''re tired, but with this, it occupies and engages the mind, so you stand and work at it longer," Porter noted. 


"Sometimes when I''m not scheduled for therapy, I''ll come here use it in spare time," said Colvin, who is committed to continued improvement. He even has a tangible goal in mind. "I''ve got a golf game scheduled with him for September," he grinned, referring to his therapist, Porter. 


"This is what we''re working toward," Seitz remarked, "increased and safe independence." 


The IN2L has multiple applications for cognitive therapy, too: touch-screen puzzles, speech therapy, recognition tools, memory apps, sequencing activities and art therapy. Porter has seen the programs help in some with Alzheimer''s or dementia.  




Baby boomers coming 


The computers aren''t a "end-all for treatment," the therapist points out, but they do provide tools to help change and enhance techniques. And they can be fun. "And any time we can make what we do fun, it''s easier on us and on the patient," he stressed. 


Porter foresees devices like these being used more and more in coming years. "Some of the residents we see now, we still have to ease them in (to the idea of using a computer), but that''s going to change sooner rather than later, as baby boomers -- who are more accustomed to living with computers -- age. 


Jack Brett, a West Point native and Ole Miss graduate who devoted many years to the U.S. Air Force, NASA and then the Occupational Safety and Health Organization in Washington, D.C., is already ahead of the curve. 


"I''m older than the computer crowd; I have to ask a lot of questions," he admits. "I didn''t know a thing about this kind of computer, but Brenda showed me how. She''s been wonderful to help us out. ... I tell you what, if I''d grown up in the computer age, I probably would have been a computer geek!"

Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.