Older and disabled people hone online self-assessment skills

Can the internet help older and disabled people remain independent? That’s what Kingston Council service users are finding out. The London borough is one of 11 councils funded by the Department of Health to pilot self-assessment for people with long-term social care and health needs.

Kingston is offering older and disabled people the chance to assess themselves for small items of daily living equipment – including grab rails, raised toilet seats and shower stools – by answering questions online.

A publicity campaign is inviting people to visit a website and fill in an assessment, answering detailed questions about their needs. The most common problem to emerge so far is getting in and out of the bath.

Using the information, the website explains if users are eligible for free equipment from the council. Those who do not qualify can purchase equipment privately, online or otherwise. Sources of advice and information are also listed, including the council’s own services, and voluntary and private sector providers.

So far, 91 assessments have been completed. The trial runs until October, when it will be evaluated by Manchester University.

The online assessment tool, called SmartAssist, was developed for the council by software company ADL Smartcare. So that assessments are meaningful, the ­information gathered is very specific. Service users and professionals are involved in development and feedback.

Kingston Age Concern and Kingston Centre for Independent Living are assisting service users to complete their assessments. Heather Shaill, day service manager for Kingston Age Concern, is a passionate advocate for the diverse abilities of older people using the charity’s centres, where they “do far more than bingo and knitting”.

Shaill concedes that some service users are more confident online than others, but believes the chance to make a self-assessment appeals to many.

“Older people worry that professionals will take over, tell them what to do or even put them in a home. What they want to do is stay independent, so finding out for themselves what is available is useful.”

The site says it offers “advice that is normally provided by professionals without the need for an appointment or a home visit”. Phil Levick, Kingston’s information and communications manager for community care services, says this suits users.

“Not everyone wants contact with social services. We can offer an expert service without the need to see a professional.”

However, the site also encourages people, particularly those with complex needs who would prefer to be assessed by staff, to contact the council for help.

Bill Brittain, Kingston’s principal manager for disability, health and occupational therapy services, says the council is developing the website to provide more generic information, starting with help for people with sensory impairments. It will link to information on the council’s main website too. Kingston wants to give service users as much control and choice as possible, emphasises Brittain.

His aspirations are in line with ­government policy. The health and social care white paper states that people with long-term social care and health needs should have better access to information and should self-assess where feasible.

Kingston’s independence drive extends to steering older and disabled people away from traditional day centres and towards mainstream services. Direct payments are one way to do so, by paying people to support users go to the gym, attend a computer fair, and more.

Disabled people in particular are embracing the challenge. A pioneering pilot group, including service users Jeff Broomfield, Sheila Cannings and Bob White from Kingston’s Crescent Resource Centre for adults with physical disabilities, travel on public transport – which gives them more flexibility than the council bus which could entail lengthy waits.

A group outing to the British Museum recently was a great success, as are trips to pubs and restaurants. Previously, if there was no transport provided by the resource centre, an outing would not happen.

“Travelling with the others has given me the confidence to go out wherever I want and enjoy myself like everyone else,” says Cannings.

Pushing the boundaries isn’t easy but the trio agree it has been worth the trouble.

Lessons learned
* Have faith in service users’ abilities. Surfing the net may have a youthful image but the number of older people online at home is rising.
* Be prepared to take service users out of their comfort zone. It is not easy for disabled people to leave their day centre and get out and about by using public transport – but the rewards are great.
* When service users self-assess, the roles of professionals may change.

Contact the author
 Josephine Hocking

This article appeared in the 3 May issue under the headline “Do it yourself”


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