Bridging the Gap: AT for Family Caregivers

By Angelica P. Herrera, DrPH, MPH, Senior Research Analyst

November is National Caregiver Month, a time to pay tribute to the 44 million individuals caring for older adults and people with disabilities in the United States. Family caregivers have an increased risk of negative health outcomes, including the erosion of physical, emotional and financial health. What can we do to ease their burden? In addition to an array of aging support services provided through a complex network of federally funded programs under the Older Americans Act, Home and Community Based Service State Medicaid waivers, and other emerging programs, the advancement of assistive technology can help bridge the gap between the services family caregivers can safely and comfortably provide and the complete spectrum of supports their family member may need.

Assistive technology is a general term for an assortment of devices, supports, and systems, including: electronic medication management systems, motorized scooters, Apps, online caregiver support groups, home movement sensors, remote emergency monitoring, GPS products for individuals with Alzheimer’s disease, and video game consoles that increase strength and reduce falls. Assistive technology can promote independence and improve quality of life for older adults and individuals with disabilities, as well as reduce the rate and cost of long-term care, allowing more individuals to stay in their communities and age in place. By making seniors more self-reliant and safer, assistive technology can give family caregivers peace of mind, and more time to handle other obligations.

When asked to describe his personal organizational system for his medications, 76-year-old Rodolfo responded, “My wife handles all of my medication, and I just keep a small piece of paper with a list of the medicine I take. I have the piece of paper here somewhere [searching through his pocket], because I haven’t memorized them all.” This scenario is one played out across many U.S. households. Along with other day-to-day tasks, older adults often lean on relatives for assistance with medication management as they age, and rely on memory aids to juggle multiple prescriptions. Technological innovations, such as electronic medication reminders that can be programmed by family caregivers may help safeguard individuals from consuming the wrong dosage or skipping medications.

The landscape of family caregiving is changing rapidly, particularly among racial and ethnic minority and immigrant groups. According to cultural gerontologist Steven Applewhite, PhD, “New generations of Latino caregivers are facing a new set of problems, mainly a scarcity of financial resources and time, and fewer relatives to share these responsibilities. These issues may signal a shift away from traditional family caregiving responsibilities toward a greater reliance on formal resources. As family members struggle to increase their efficiency as caregivers, these challenges provide ample opportunity to introduce assistive technologies to lessen the strain of caregiving.” Other minority and immigrant groups experience similar family issues. Dr. T.J. McCallum has published extensively on issues affecting family caregivers of African Americans with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia related disorders. “Caregiving in the African American community is strengthened by good communication between family members, so assistive technologies that allow caregivers to share information with other family members is crucial for the healthy functioning of the overall caregiving network.”

As new products flood the market, it is important that technology developers, health care providers, and lawmakers ensure equality in access, usability, and application of innovative technologies for the increasingly diverse population of older adults and individuals with disabilities, as well as their family caregivers. With chronic conditions especially prominent among Latino and African-American communities, it calls attention to the importance of including a more diverse group of seniors and family caregivers in all stages of research in developing, tailoring, and testing assistive technology.

To speak to a representative at AbleData about selecting appropriate assistive technologies and other products to support the care of older adults and people with disabilities, or discuss product reimbursement, call 1-800-227-0216 (Se habla Español), or visit www.abledata.com.

For general questions about caregiving resources and aging services, contact the ElderCare Locator, a free public service of the Administration for Community Living, which provides online and telephone assistance to family caregivers and older adults. Call 1-800-677-1116 or visit: http://eldercare.gov/eldercare.NET/Public/index.aspx

Dr. Herrera is a gerontologist specializing in aging and health policy.