How Somerset's independent living centres are helping elderly and vulnerable people live in their homes for longer


What do a robotic cat, a mechanical bird and a fabric leg lifter all have in common?

They may sound like the characters in a 1970s children's TV show, but they're all examples of technology being utilised to allow elderly and vulnerable Somerset residents to stay in their own homes for longer, rather than having to go into hospital or a nursing home. Somerset Council currently operates four independent living centres (ILCs) across the county, which offer a wide range of equipment and technology which allows people to remain in their homes and live as independently as possible.

The Local Democracy Reporting Service was recently given a guided tour of the Yeovil ILC, located within the Yeovil Innovation Centre just over the road from the town's football club. The ILC is laid out like a showroom, with a wide range of technologies and adapted furniture on show, allowing visitors to 'try before they buy' and choose solutions which meet their specific needs.

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Julian Bellew, one of Somerset Council's commissioning officers, said: "For me, this is about helping people who may be struggling with day-to-day tasks. It's really important that people can do as much as they can for themselves, stay independent and stay in their own homes.

"By having this centre, we can see people as early as possible. There is a national shortage of occupational therapists, and by having our occupational therapy teams here, we can see people early to have an assessment, and hopefully we can send them away with equipment which can help with their day-to-day living."

Adapted bed equipment within the Yeovil independent living centre
Adapted bed equipment within the Yeovil independent living centre

Somerset Council, like many local authorities across the UK, has seen demand for its adult social care services rise sharply in recent years, in light of an elderly population, pressure on the NHS and the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. By encouraging individuals to use technology to support them in daily tasks, the council is able to allocate its resources in areas where a person-to-person intervention is needed.

However, Mr Bellew stressed that the motivation behind the ILCs was not solely about keeping costs down or using technology to entirely replace carers. He said: "There are some tasks that technology or aids can't do for someone, such as washing, dressing or feeding someone.

"It's about people planning for the future - we get a lot of people who don't need this support, but are a bit worried about their mum or their aunt. We try and showcase the art of the possible.

Adapted bed equipment within the Yeovil independent living centre
Adapted bed equipment within the Yeovil independent living centre

"There comes a time in someone's life where they do need more hands-on care - but the more we can keep people independent, the better that is for them, for both their physical and mental well-being." Claire Collett, one of the council's occupational therapists, added: "It's about people's choice - some people might find it more intrusive if they've got people doing things for them.

"Some technology can help someone do something for themselves and feel more in control of their lives. We don't want to create stigmas - sometimes technology can be a little scary to people.

"By seeing it in a home environment, you might think: 'Actually, I could have that in my own home. That would work for me.'

Adapted seating within the Yeovil independent living centre
Adapted seating within the Yeovil independent living centre

"It's about making it normal, really. We're all starting to have more technology in our homes, and I'm sure we're going to see a lot more by the time I'm in my eighties."

The furniture within the Yeovil showroom has been designed to be as normal-feeling as possible. While there are walking sticks and the like being offered, it feels a million miles away from a sterile hospital ward.

Numerous different kinds of technology are on show and available to try out, including:

  • An Alexa voice assistant which can be used to open curtains or turn on fans

  • A robotic cat or dog which responds to movement or touch, designed for people with anxiety or dementia

  • A mechanical bird which encourages people with limited mobility to sing as they walk

  • Leg lifts to allow people to move their legs in and out of bed

Walker with a mechanical bird at the Yeovil independent living centre
Walker with a mechanical bird at the Yeovil independent living centre

Ms Collett said: "If you visit here, it's a bespoke assessment for you. It's not a blanket approach, it's about the difficulty you're experiencing and the support is made bespoke for each person."

Mr Bellew added: "The best way for us to find the right technology or equipment for individuals is to allow people to try it for themselves. Everybody's different.

"People can try different options to find what works for them - it's a person-centred approach. We do ask people to bring photographs of their home to give our staff a guide.

Adapted seating within the Yeovil independent living centre
Adapted seating within the Yeovil independent living centre

"If you're physically healthy, you take for granted having a bath or shower when you want, or getting up when you want. This is about dignity, allowing people to do things when they want to do them."

Depending on the equipment that people need, people having an assessment could either take home their technology on the day or have it installed within seven to ten days of their assessment. Larger-scale adaptations of a person's home, such as the installation of an external ramp or handrails, are handled through a separate process - and these may take a little longer to implement.

Mr Bellew said: "If you need an assessment, you can phone us up and book an appointment or you can go online and request one. Generally, you can be seen within about two to three weeks.

Kitchen equipment within the Yeovil independent living centre
Kitchen equipment within the Yeovil independent living centre

"We are also able to pick up formal referrals, say from district nurses or other professionals. We want to see as many people as we can, and we now get around 150 referrals a month - these centres are proving really popular."

Independent living centres are currently operating in Shepton Mallet, Wellington and Yeovil - with the council exploring opening an additional facility in Bridgwater in the near-future. For more information, or to book an appointment, call 0300 123 2224 or visit www.somerset.gov.uk/care-and-support-for-adults/equipment-to-help-you.