STAFF in care homes should coordinate the way elderly residents watch TV after with dementia sufferers often benefiting from watching their favourite programmes, according to an international expert.

Those in care can be made to feel part of national events, stay socially engaged and even cope with bereavement by watching TV, said Professor June Andrews of Stirling University.

Prof Andrews says television can involve older people in major events from Rugby’s Six Nations and Wimbledon, to Royal weddings or anniversaries, while the theme tune of a favourite show can calm someone who is agitated or upset.

Much research has focused on the negative impact of viewing, and ‘telly on’ has become a shorthand for a depressing care home environment, where residents sit mute around a screen in dreary surroundings, she admits.

But care homes should move beyond using the TV as a ‘babysitter’, Prof Andrews says - and the best already are. New technology and can make for tailor made programming and help keep alive the interests of someone who has lost mobility or has memory problems.

“I’ve yet to visit a care home that doesn’t rely on TV at all,” she said. “But I think we need to get away from the view that it is a low grade occupation.”

For someone who has attended church all their life, but can no longer easily do so, a visiting pastor might be the next best thing, Prof Andrews, who is based at the university's Dementia Services Development Centre, says.

But a TV church service such as Songs of Praise could also fill the gap. Cookery programmes can stimulate elderly residents who may argue about merits of different ways of preparing meals, while someone interested in sport, or someone used to Gaelic or a foreign language, for example could have programming organised to meet their interests or cultural needs.

The report, which makes eight recommendations for using TV in homes, says a television retains a “special, symbolic significance in care homes... literally part of the furniture, a source of comfort and continuity between home and care home.”

The report recommends TV is considered as part of the design of homes, and that assumptions are not made about what people want to watch. TVs should also be user friendly with manageable remote control handsets and even home cinema type set ups to promote communal viewing of films or events.

“If someone is into sitcoms or crime drama, they can be on as often as staff put it on. In some cases, even if they do not take much interest in the plot, the act of hearing the music and sitting down to watch can be calming,” she said.

“The dangers of TV can be quite real. Someone left watching television on their own may not be able to turn it off if something upsetting comes on so you need to be careful.”

Staff usually responsible for organising excursions or social activities within a care home could take responsibility for TV-based activities too, she said.

“Many care homes have activities coordinators, responsible for creative arts, visits and trips. They may not think it is their job to supervise or shape the way TV is used, but with a bit of focus, it can have similar effects. What you don’t want is for a low-waged, task-focused temporary care worker to decide, or the television sitting in the corner, ungoverned, with residents watching whatever comes on randomly.”

Ranald Mair, chief executive of Scottish Care, which represents the private care home sector welcomed the suggestions. “Every care home will have access to TVs, but sometimes a TV in someone’s own room might be seen as an optional extra, or provided by families,” he said. “We wouldn’t want large groups of people sitting staring at a screen, but television can encourage reminiscence and help keep people in touch. You need good staffing ratios to maximise the benefits.”