Partnership creates pioneering app to keep families living with dementia connected

A pioneering phone app designed to keep families living with dementia connected launches later this year after ethical entrepreneurs Grant Ripley and Fran Ferris discovered the University of Sheffield’s Made Together initiative.

A close up of a woman holding a mobile phone
  • A new smartphone app designed to keep families living with dementia in touch is launching thanks to connections forged through the University's 'Made Together' initiative.
  • The 'Family Phone' app is a result of a collaboration between ethical entrepreneurs Grant Ripley and Fran Ferris, and University of Sheffield researcher Dr Phil Jodrell, who specialises in the use and accessibility of touchscreen apps for people with dementia.
  • Thousands of families across Sheffield and beyond could benefit when the app launches later this year.

A pioneering phone app designed to keep families living with dementia connected launches later this year after ethical entrepreneurs Grant Ripley and Fran Ferris discovered the University of Sheffield’s Made Together initiative.

Tech developer Grant was inspired by the experiences of his own grandfather but knew he and business partner Fran needed specific help to develop an app which could overcome the challenges people with dementia face when making calls and recognising callers.

“We’d been working with universities in the south and, while it had been useful, they hadn't been able to offer the support with validation that we needed," said Fran.

"I then bumped into someone from the Mayor’s office up here and they mentioned a fund available for working with the University and I just thought, ‘Let’s see what they can offer’.”

The pair were introduced to Dr Phil Joddrell, a researcher at the University’s School of Health and Related Research (ScHARR), thanks to the Sheffield Innovation Programme – an initiative which the University supports through its Made Together commitment to making South Yorkshire greener, healthier, more vibrant and innovative.

Dr Joddrell said: “An email was sent round looking for someone to help with Grant and Fran’s work, and it was really clear that I would fit because it described the field I was working in, dementia and touchscreen apps. For me, it was great because it was engaging with a local business who were developing in an area which intersects with my research.”

Dr Joddrell, who works in the School’s Centre for Assistive Technology and Connected Healthcare (CATCH), used his specialist knowledge to find and review latest research on the detailed needs of people with dementia so he could see how Grant and Fran’s prototype Family Phone app measured up to what was needed, and what was already available on the market.

“Phil could not have been a better match because he’s an expert who also happened to be interested in development of touchscreen interfaces for people with dementia," said Fran.

"It felt like one of those things that was too good to be true, but it was true – and he was right on our doorstep!

“The entire process of working with him has been so easy because his background is so closely aligned with what we needed.”

The experience was just as worthwhile for Dr Joddrell.

The whole Made Together approach of working with businesses and people around the region is at the heart of a lot of what my team does. 

said Dr Joddrell

“With this project, there are going to be thousands of people in Sheffield with dementia who could benefit from Family Phone. If the app ends up helping those people, then that is me seeing the direct impact of my work - and that’s what’s important for me. I want what I do to benefit people in the ‘real’ world.”

Fran and Grant have honed the initial version of their Family Phone app to make sure users can recognise callers and, in turn, easily and safely make their own calls – including video calls. The app will bar cold callers by using access codes for family members who can then talk in a safe, closed group.

Grant said: “One of the big problems with the initial version was enabling the person experiencing dementia to recognise who was calling but we’ve solved that so they can now match the caller’s image with a carousel of images of their frequent family callers.” 

The pair, who run Sheffield-based Accessible Communications, have been keen to keep the app affordable for all users and say it will be available to families for just £2.99 a month from app stores. 

They’re meanwhile looking forward to user feedback when they launch the app later this year but have already got plenty of ideas for developing its potential for alerting family members when the user has a fall or even just forgets to close a window.

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