According to Age UK, more than one million older people say they go over a month without speaking to a friend, neighbour or family member. In care homes, elderly residents can be disconnected from their family because of geographical distance, or illnesses such as dementia. In 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic has had a significant impact, in many cases becoming the dominant factor for care home residents losing connection with the outside world. The need for social distancing has accelerated the use of remote, digital communications across healthcare, and one company’s mobile app, developed by former carers with support from Oxford University, has been designed to specifically address isolation by helping caregivers to connect with their residents’ families and close friends.
Richard Böckel is co-founder and UK managing director of mobile app myo and had worked for five months as a caregiver in a residential care home in Germany, an experience which gave him an insider’s knowledge into challenges faced by carers. Böckel and his co-creators realised the need for better communication after taking a group of residents out for lunch and a visit to a museum. When the daughter of one of the group asked her mother what she had done that day, she replied, “I’ve just been sitting all day and I haven’t even eaten.” Understandably, her mother’s memory loss caused a lot of distress and distrust in the home until the misunderstanding was fixed. Böckel realised this type of situation was a common occurrence.
Care homes across the UK are increasingly using technology to attempt to fight loneliness. In North Yorkshire, ten homes received tablet devices from their local council to allow video calls between residents and their loved ones. BT is running a pilot project, whereby a team of 40 volunteers in its call centres in Gosforth and Doncaster make regular calls to residents in local Marton Care Homes.
myo, short for myosotis, the forget-me-not flower, is downloaded by caregivers to their own phones to enable them to share pictures and videos of everyday moments of residents’ lives with their families, and it acts as a communication platform between families and care home staff.
It’s the first app of its kind to be designed by caregivers, and addresses the issue of how to communicate with care home residents who are unable to use digital devices or technologies. The many social media platforms that could be used to connect families rely on all users being able to use them, but this precludes many residents.
myo differs in that its primary users are the carers on behalf of their residents, and works in a way that places the value on the caregiver’s voice by giving them control. Being easy to download gives the app huge potential reach, as it could be used by care homes pretty much anywhere in the world.
Böckel explained to TechTribe Oxford how using tablets to allow residents to video-call their families can become time consuming for carers. They not only have to organise the resident and family, they also have to organise the often limited technology available in the care home. By making communication easier and more accessible, the company claims caregivers are saving 30% of their time when using myo to communicate with families.
Since it launched in 2016, feedback from caregivers using myo shows a 500% improvement in positive communication with families, and a tripling of appreciation for their work via the app. Caregiver Lena says on the company’s website: “myo has reminded me of the motivations that first took me into the care sector … I care passionately about my work and it is personally so rewarding being able to share this directly with families … I know our residents benefit immeasurably from knowing their loved-ones are just a moment away.”
With more transparency around the care of their relatives, myo claims that families’ trust in the quality of care has increased by 70%, and residents have seen a three-fold increase in contact with their families. This has benefitted staff morale, and care providers using myo are reporting improved levels of staff retention.
According to gov.uk, there are around 11,300 nursing and residential care homes housing 400,000 people in the UK alone, so the potential for myo in the UK is not insignificant. The company is also expanding abroad – it has received help from Oxford’s Student Consultancy to internationalise its processes, and now operates in Germany, Switzerland, Austria and the US.
myo is a venture within Oxford University’s entrepreneur support programme Oxford Foundry, and one of the companies in its Covid-19 action plan. Böckel explained its involvement in the plan: “The Oxford Foundry is constantly a good sounding board and helps us to connect with good people. The fantastic thing is that it is connected to the university. People are willing to help – it is a very genuine network”.
Since the outbreak of Covid-19, myo has offered its services free of charge to help solve the challenges from social distancing which care homes now face. When TechTribe Oxford spoke to the firm in June 2020, it reported that over 4,000 new families had joined myo in the last few weeks, and engagement with existing carers and families had jumped ten-fold.
“When we launched myo back in 2016,” said Böckel, “we could never have foreseen how our app for the care sector would go on to have so much relevance for the times in which we now live … We are proud to be offering our service for free to all UK care providers for as long as it takes for the crisis to stabilise, and we stand with all those on the frontlines of health and social care at this time of unprecedented human challenge.”
Natasha Jackson-Gordham, whose mother is in a care home and uses myo, said: “My mother has been in a care home in England for a year now. Living in the US, I miss my Mum a lot. myo has given me an amazing glimpse into her life and I now don’t know what I would do without it. These myo posts are currently even more meaningful during Covid-19. I believe myo is an application that should be used by all care homes to diminish the distance felt.”