Article by Jordan Rosenfeld
When Ryan Patterson, who cares for his elderly parents, had to travel on business, he was forced to be creative to get his parents the care they needed.
The CEO and founder of Texas-based SeniorAdvice.com, a caregiver information advocacy site for seniors, Patterson already had a full plate when he also became responsible for his parents’ health. But technology helped his parents become more independent, and allowed Patterson to travel for work.
In his absence, a ride-sharing app enabled his parents to get to their medical appointments. An online caregiving site sent in-person help when they needed it, and food delivery apps made sure his parents had enough to eat while he was gone. Without technology, Patterson might not have been able to travel.
Caregivers, like physicians, can have so many demands on their time that they may struggle to fit everything into their schedules. Numerous apps and devices can help make their roles easier, but caregivers with limited experience with medicine or technology may be unaware of options suited to their needs. Physicians and professional care providers are in the perfect position to educate caregivers about the right tech for them.
“We put the onus on the ones who are suffering to seek treatment. If we can educate more providers, we have the opportunity for people on the outside to reach in,” said Ranak Trivedi, PhD, a clinical health psychologist and assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral medicine at Stanford University.
Dr. Trivedi is interested in identifying barriers and facilitators of chronic illness self-management, and developing family centered self-management programs that address the needs of both patients and their family members.
There is a significant need, after all. Between 40 and 70 percent of caregivers report depression, and between 11 and 23 percent report that caregiving has negatively impacted their physical health as well.
Technology can lighten caregiver burden
The stress of caregiving can be exacerbated when multiple responsibilities pile on, as with “sandwich” caregivers who care for both children and an older adult. According to the Pew Research Center, about three in ten U.S. adults find themselves in this situation. These caregivers are especially strapped for time, and have little flexibility in taking time off from their caregiving duties. Technology that allows caregivers to handle important tasks such as ride-sharing and food-delivery services can fill the gaps when these overtaxed caregivers can’t be physically present.
Another emerging area of technology that has great promise to help caregivers communicate with patients’ doctors is remote patient monitoring tech, Trivedi said. While a caregiver can’t purchase it, they can inquire of their patient’s physician about the possibility of its use.
“Remote patient monitoring of blood pressure or blood glucose would offset some of the stress on the caregiver,” Trivedi explained, by sending data to doctors instead of having to drive them to an appointment.
If remote patient monitoring is unavailable, household devices may still give the caregiver some peace of mind. A patient who has dementia, for example, can wear a GPS-connected device that allows the caregiver to track their patient’s location and get a general sense of the patient’s wellness, so the caregiver doesn’t feel they have to be physically present at times.
Technology supports aging caregivers
While some patients care for both the old and young, an increasing number of caregivers are themselves becoming elderly, said Anna Yam, PhD, a clinical psychologist with a specialty in gerontology at Bloom Psychology in California. “Their spouse has gotten sicker than they are or maybe developed cognitive impairment and dementia, so they are the person who is caregiving,” she said.
These caregivers are more likely to be facing unpredictable medical events, and may be extremely worried about the patient when they are not with them. Some simple technologies can help them gain more peace of mind.
Claudia Fine, Chief Professional Care Advisor for eFamilyCare.com, a New York based digital platform that connects family caregivers of aging adults with experts, believes that simpler is better when it comes to tech. For example, caregivers can take advantage of technology that’s already built into most smartphones like FaceTime, or similar apps that can allow a caregiver to “see” into their patient’s home without being there.
Technology can also speed up and improve communication—so teaching a patient to text versus making a phone call can be helpful, Fine said.
Other technologies can empower the patient, which can reduce caregiver burden, said Patterson. He sees value in medical alert devices. “It’s good for the caregiver because most caregivers don’t live with the person that they’re caring for,” he said. The patient can summon help without having to contact the caregiver right away, he said.
Technology can reduce caregiver stress
Research shows that caregiving, even when it’s a welcome choice, can be so demanding and stressful to the caregiver that it meets the criteria of a chronic stress experience, creating physical and psychological strain, and accompanied by unpredictability that often requires high vigilance.
Fine says that many caregivers experience “micro-crises” that add up over time as patients get sicker and take a serious toll on the caregivers. “We know that caregivers of people with severe chronic illnesses, especially dementia, end up having a shorter life expectancy than the people who they’re taking care of because of the stress of their day,” she said.
Technology may be able to help alleviate this stress, Fine said.
Technology that supports caregivers’ mental health can be a huge help, according to Yam. She recommends tele-mental health, where adults can receive assessments and talk therapy through video conferencing or telephone calls.
“It increases the possibility that [caregivers] can access care when they don’t have as much flexibility,” Yam said. “What if you could do a session when the [patient] is sleeping at night, taking a nap or busy doing something? That’s a complete game changer for caregivers.”
Not to mention, the people trained in providing behavioral health and emotional support to caregivers are also trained to help caregivers troubleshoot issues they have with their care recipients, Yam explained.
For people who don’t have the time or ability to engage a mental health professional, Trivedi pointed to numerous apps for stress management and coping, which teach meditation, relaxation, and depression management among others. While they aren’t all perfect, they are a good starting place.
As the aging population of the U.S. grows, caregivers will need every tool at their disposal. “There’s a lot to be said for supporting caregivers, because they are doing a really big job,” said Yam.
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