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Thanks, Internet, for the Memories


Age UK, a British organization that strives to help older people get more out of digital technology, is hoping to win financial support from Google's Global Impact Challenge for what could be a revolutionary idea. It wants to help thousands of people in Great Britain reminisce about their past via the Internet, as a way of teaching them about the value of being online and how it can improve their lives and decrease feelings of isolation. And although the project isn't being touted for this use, it ultimately could also help a vastly larger segment of seniors around the world who have age-related cognitive problems.

As Age UK's proposal explains:

Memories are incredibly powerful, and reminiscing about happy times or important people is often inspired by music, film, literature, or images. So we're going to use the power of memories to show older people how fun and useful technology can be. We'll show older people who are not online how easily precious memories can be revisited using simple, web-based technology. Then, harnessing the power of these memories, we'll invite older people to further events like dances, book clubs or films nights at Age UKs across the country. At these sociable events older people will have the opportunity to explore their memories further using technology, and while they are reminiscing and having fun, we'll be able to deliver training in the digital skills that are needed to thrive in our modern world. 

Related: Four Strategies Help Your Brain with Aging

Here's a video version of Age UK's pitch, for which it hopes to obtain 500,000 British pounds - about $760,000 - in funding from Google. The winner of the grant will be determined by Google users who vote here.

While Age UK's project seems primarily intended to encourage healthy older people who are still living independently to get online, it's not hard to imagine how the same technology also could be harnessed to help those who are battling age-related memory problems. Back in the 1960s, Dr. Robert Butler, a pioneer in geriatric psychiatry, was the first to suggest that striving to remember past experiences could be helpful to elderly people. Since then, Butler's idea has evolved into reminiscence therapy, in which caregivers at nursing homes and senior daycare centers provide visual and aural cues - such as pictures, old videotapes or home movies, and music - in an effort to stimulate the brains of patients struggling with Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia.

Numerous studies - such as this one - have shown when patients are encouraged to retrieve still-intact recollections from their long-term memories, it has a modest but significant impact in curbing depression, and improving patients' ability to communicate and to care for themselves.  In some cases, reminiscing about the past can even boost cognitive functioning in dementia patients.

Up to this point, reminiscence therapists have relied heavily upon physical artifacts such as old newspaper clippings, phonograph records and snapshots. But the Internet, with its ability to deliver a vast trove of images, sounds and video, and to connect far-flung people all over the planet, potentially could make the therapy even more effective. It's already been tried on an experimental level. In a 2006 study by Japanese researchers, elderly dementia patients and therapists shared photos and videos online, with results comparable to face-to-face therapy sessions. Another study by Irish researchers, published in 2011, gave dementia patients access to a touch-screen system that allowed them to watch YouTube videos. Afterward, they showed improved ability to communicate and interact with other people. "Multimedia technology can enable a greater depth and variety of choice of reminiscence materials, offering the person with dementia more control over the types of materials used," the researchers concluded.

It's not hard to envision a scenario in which people in their 50s and 60s compile digital scrapbooks containing snapshots, videos, music, digitized images of keepsakes from their youth - and perhaps even panoramic landscapes of places where they've lived or visited - as a bulwark against future memory loss. We'd love to hear what you think of this idea, and how you might go about preserving your memories online for future retrieval.


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