Free technology training and support for people living with dementia.
This article was written by a guest contributor, and the views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the author.
Fabien Melanson sits in his music studio in Ottawa, switches his computer on and fires up Zoom. In the background Melanson has a few guitars, as a nod to his background in music. By giving people he works with a glimpse into what his interests are, building trust with a client is easier, according to Melanson.
Melanson patiently waits for the older adult he is working with to join his Zoom call before admitting them to their meeting: “Hello, my name is Fabien, and I am a technology mentor with Connected Canadians. How are you doing today?”
Melanson is one of over 200 technology mentors that have been trained by Connected Canadians, a national non-profit that improves digital literacy skills amongst older adults by providing free technology training and support. Melanson previously worked in many roles across the service industry — starting as a cook and working his way into serving and bartending before moving into audio-visual production.
In March of 2020, the pandemic left Melanson, like most people working in the service industry, underemployed and looking for something to do. At the time, Connected Canadians was inundated with requests from older adults looking for help to connect with friends and family digitally, as the pandemic left many isolated. Funded by the City of Ottawa, Connected Canadians created a mentor training program centred around client-facing hospitality workers, recognizing their skills would be ideal when employed providing tech support to seniors.
“When a person has dementia, technology can be an absolute lifeline for them, but the learning process has to be carefully considered to make sure that it isn’t overwhelming and is productive.”
– Fabien Melanson, technology mentor at Connected Canadians
While Connected Canadians provides technology training and support to all older adults looking for help, working with people living with dementia has been central to their organization.
Connected Canadians collaborated with the Dementia Society of Ottawa and Renfrew County (DSORC) in summer 2020 to train mentors to address the needs of people living with dementia, for programming that ran in summer 2021 and onwards.
“From what I have noticed, it is really important to meet people where they are with technology — whether it is something as simple as how to swipe or click their device and build from there,” said Melanson. “When a person has dementia, technology can be an absolute lifeline for them, but the learning process has to be carefully considered to make sure that it isn’t overwhelming and is productive.”
In a 2017 study in Dementia, an international peer-reviewed journal, researchers from the London School of Economics investigated the role technology plays in care for people living with the disability. They found technology that caters to people living with dementia has positive impacts in social interaction, memory and support of self-care and activities of daily living, care delivery and safety, but the practice is generally not widespread.
Connected Canadians had mentors like Melanson, who would spend time working with people with dementia, and undergo specific dementia-friendly training with DSORC. This collaboration ensures Connected Canadians’ technology mentors receive top-tier training, just like anyone who works full-time with people living with dementia.
“Essentially, the training gives a background on what dementia is, what it is like to live with dementia and best practices for communicating and maintaining a meaningful connection with someone who is living it,” said Dean Henderson, Director of Client Experience, Education and Innovation at DSORC.
"The reality is technology isn’t the answer for everyone, but there are people who benefit so greatly that Connected Canadians makes a huge impact on them."
– Zoe Kirschner, DSORC program assistant
Connected Canadians also has a tablet lending program with DSORC, which allows their clients to try using a tablet to see if it benefits them. Connected Canadians equipped the tablets with dementia-friendly apps to facilitate games that help keep their users’ minds sharp. It also worked with Amazon to provide some of the clients at the Dementia Society with Amazon Echo Show devices at no cost, which have provided caregivers with a way to check in on their loved ones without some of the barriers technology often presents.
“One of the best parts about Connected Canadians’ work with us is the flexibility,” said Zoe Kirschner, a program assistant with DSORC. “The reality is technology isn’t the answer for everyone, but there are people who benefit so greatly that Connected Canadians makes a huge impact on them.” Feedback shows that some of the recipients of technology training and devices have been profoundly impacted by working with Connected Canadians.
“Getting people comfortable with technology, especially when they are in early stages of dementia, can ultimately be incredibly beneficial,” said Henderson.
Emily Jones Joanisse and Tasneem Damen founded Connected Canadians in 2018 after both had noticed a need for national support for older adults looking to become more digitally literate.
“Core to what we do,” said Jones Joanisse, “especially in terms of working with people living with dementia, is cultivating partnerships with organizations with seniors who could use our support.”
In her own life, Jones Joanisse was introduced to technology by her father, James Jones, 82, a now-retired professor at the University of Western Ontario’s Department of Physics and Astronomy. Jones was an early adopter of computers, building them at home in the 1970s, and he shared his passion with his daughter, from as early as five or six years of age.
“When Emily was young, it was important to me to teach her to be comfortable with a computer because that was the direction the world was going,” Jones said. “I remember, I purchased her a computer and had her figure her way around a half dozen lines of code or so.”
The formative experience with computers set her on a track for a technology career. By gaining a high comfort level with technology at an early age, Jones Joanisse credits her desire to co-found Connected Canadians to her father’s eagerness to share technology with her.
As Jones Joanisse sees her father advance in age and maintain his passion for solving problems through technology, the value of technology use at any age couldn’t be clearer.
Beyond DSORC, Connected Canadians works with multiple dementia-supporting organizations, including Parkinson’s Canada, providing one-on-one mentorship to members of its community. Connected Canadians has also worked with the National Gallery of Canada to provide older adults and people living with dementia access to virtual tours with a technology mentor to guide them.
For Melanson, providing technology training has been a great way for him to connect with people during the pandemic, when he was also feeling more socially isolated.
"I really encourage anyone who could benefit from Connected Canadians’ services to reach out,” said Melanson. “And on the other side, I think that anyone who has tech skills should try to reach out to Connected Canadians and volunteer, because I feel like it has been a really rewarding experience a lot of people would benefit from.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Connected Canadians is a non-profit organization founded in Ottawa in 2018 that promotes digital literacy skills amongst older adults by providing free technology training and support.
The organization believes that all people should be empowered to use technology safely and effectively to help them engage with loved ones and enhance their quality of life.
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