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Generation Facebook: Boomers Use Technology for Care

Feb. 11, 2011

I reluctantly joined Facebook.? With two email accounts, a blackberry, a landline, and being LinkedIn, I felt I was too accessible already. ?At 52, did I really want someone writing on my wall? ?My children let me know in no uncertain terms that they would never friend me, but I tried anyway.? So it came as a surprise to see that my 85-year-old aunt was on Facebook. ?But maybe it shouldn't have.

Nielsen Research reveals that the number of seniors (65 and older) using the Web has increased by 6 million in the last five years, defying stereotypes of technology marginalization as we age.? This comfort with technology has many implications for not only our increasingly senior population, but also the family caregivers who are caring for them.? The new study, ?"E-Connected Family Caregiver: Bringing Caregiving into the 21st Century," conducted by UnitedHealthcare and the National Alliance for Caregiving, reveals ways in which technologies can alleviate the many challenges of caring for aging adults.

As a social worker with more than 20 years of experience in the field of eldercare and as a daughter of a parent who suffers from dementia, I know the plight of family caregivers.? I know the sad realization that your parent can no longer manage independently, and that no matter how attentive or knowledgeable you are, you may not be there when a crisis erupts. ?I have heard the struggles of adult children who steal time during their workday to furtively schedule medical appointments, arrange home care, and field numerous calls from anxious parents, all the time fearing that their co-workers will "out" them. ?I have worked with numerous caregivers who give selflessly to their loved ones, while contending with disengaged siblings, help-rejecting parents, and a health care system that is fractured and unresponsive.

Can technology address all the complex and emotionally draining demands faced by caregivers? Probably not.? But according to this recent study, it can help. ?While Facebook and an increased comfort with computers and navigating the Internet are beneficial for communicating, the technologies identified with the greatest potential for assisting caregivers - mostly adult children - include personal health record tracking, caregiving coordination systems, and medication monitoring devices.? These technologies are particularly beneficial for long distance caregivers; a group that represents 15% of all family caregivers.

Take Janice for example.? Janice lives in Connecticut with her husband and two adolescent sons.? She also has a high-power full-time job.? Her 89-year-old father, Martin, lives alone in Phoenix, Arizona. Martin has become increasingly frail and is reluctant to accept any help, despite a complicated medication regimen that requires ongoing oversight and reminders. ?A retired pharmacist, Martin ended up in the hospital with a medication error, a leading cause of preventable hospitalizations in this country. Janice did not know how she was going to prevent it from happening again.

Janice contacted Care.com for help strategizing how to manage Martin's care remotely.? Emergency trips to Phoenix were unsustainable, and her constant worry was a physical and psychic drain on her and her family.

She needed a realistic plan to insure her father was safe without losing his independence. ?Janice first needed her Dad to accept help, which came in the form of home health aides who checked in on Martin daily. ?Janice purchased a medication reminder system that could hold up to 40 days of medication at a time.? The sensory device ensured that Martin was taking his medication correctly; if Martin missed a dose, Janice received a call. ?Martin was won over by the sheer innovation of the device, and Janet gained some peace of mind that reduced tension between father and daughter.

The E-Connected study reveals that 61% of caregivers found that video phone systems or webcams which allow caregivers to monitor family members remotely, are considered somewhat or very helpful. Yet 58% report the presence of barriers with this type of technology.

Dan and his mother, Esther, were experiencing those barriers to care. ?Dan is a senior partner in a corporate law firm in New York City.? His mother Esther lives in a rural community in Western Pennsylvania, in the house she has lived in for 52 years.? Esther is feisty and fiercely independent; however, she suffered from osteoporosis and had fallen multiple times over the past year. ?Her remote location concerned her son who lived in fear of the next fall.? Dan convinced his mother to accept an emergency response system, which she reluctantly wore around her neck to summon help if she fell or needed assistance.? Dan continued to worry, however, as Esther became more reclusive.

After reading an article about the use of web cams and passive motion detector systems, Dan thought he had found a solution.? When he broached the idea with his mother, she balked.? Esther finally was receptive to a low-tech solution: having a caregiver visit several times each week to check in on her and to make sure the refrigerator wasn't empty.? But the lack of a monitoring system still concerns her son.

From my experience coaching caregivers, technology plays an important role in keeping seniors independent and supporting family caregivers.? But the Internet can be a black hole; a maze of information, often conflicting, that may make the most seasoned Googlers' heads spin. ?More importantly, technology alone may not help the Janices and Dans of this country, all 52 million of them, who need real solutions to the complex and thorny issues of how to best care for their parents. ?For that, there is no replacement for getting expert help, whether it is a physician or an expert in eldercare, someone who can help support and guide you through your own unique personal caregiving journey.

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