Everyday Americans are performing a Herculean task in caring for the nation’s dementia sufferers. But it comes at a cost.
The 24-hour demands of taking care of a parent, spouse, or loved one can put the carer themselves at risk of becoming socially isolated and lonely as their personal life shifts to accommodate their patient’s needs. Simultaneously, the cruel reality is that Alzheimer’s and other diseases that affect the memory have the potential to erode the intimacy of life-long bonds and leave those caring for the patient feeling alone amid their closest relationships.
However, help may be at hand in the form of video conferencing. A group of Australian researchers is currently trialing the use of video calls to keep those caring for patients with dementia connected to both professional and social contacts outside the home.
This specific use of video conferencing for home health care could be a life-saving adaptation of a technology that began as little more than a fancy business tool.
Video Conferencing for Home Health Care Fights Isolation
Social isolation is a killer. It’s a scientific fact. Research analyzed by Brigham Young University that included several hundred thousand people found that loneliness and isolation could lead to a 32 percent increase in the likelihood of premature mortality.
It’s a particularly dark scenario when you consider that those caring for people with dementia suffer twice the levels of substantial emotional difficulties as those who care for patients without the affliction. The disease would appear to have two victims–those with the condition and those carrying the burden of caring for them.
What the study being carried out by Central Queensland University is trying to do is use video calling to establish social and professional connections that don’t require the person giving the care to be forced to leave their patient. During the trial, carers from rural and regional areas will participate in weekly video group chats, where they’ll be encouraged to share their experiences, talk to friends and family, and seek advice from medical staff.
The key to the project, however, is the use of what the researchers have called “off-the-shelf” technology. That is, cheap, commercially available equipment like webcams and desktop computers that are easy to use and can be run in the average household. That’s important, because the people caring for those with dementia in the U.S. are average, everyday Americans.
Family and Friend Networks
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, more than 80% of the care provided to older people in the U.S. comes from family, friends, and other unpaid caregivers. About a third of these people are 65 or older, and a quarter are what is known as the “sandwich generation,” people caring for both an elderly person and a relative under the age of 18 at the same time.
These are people who may not have a working knowledge of video conferencing, or the time to be bothering with complicated technology. They need to be able to make a video call as easily as they make a phone call.
Fortunately, ease of use has become a buzzword within the video conferencing industry recently. While the technology began life as expensive in-room equipment that required specialized IT knowledge, now it is all about voice-activated and touch-sensitive controls and one-click connections. Many of the leading smartphone social media apps, such as WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger now include video calling and in-home devices such as the Google-backed Bloom have been specifically designed with the elderly in mind.
Merging this ever-friendlier technology with practical help for home care aides is going to become more important in the future because the number of Americans suffering from dementia is expected to increase dramatically.
Creating a Video Helpline
The U.S.’ aging population has thrown up something of a contradiction in predictions about future dementia rates. While there has been a percentage decrease in the number of sufferers since the turn of the Millennium, the proportion of the population aged over 65 has increased such that there has been an increase in the raw number of people with the disease.
As it stands today, about five million Americans suffer from dementia–and alarmingly, that number is supposed to triple by 2050.
So, we are going to need the results of that Australian trial sooner rather than later. What we can hope they prove is that regular face-to-face video calls, over readily available platforms or even smartphones (the trial is being conducted using Zoom, one of the more user-friendly offerings on the market) are enough to help those caring for patients with dementia perform their roles while still maintaining their own mental health. Video conferencing won’t help cure dementia, but it could provide an instant source of support for those of us left to care for loved ones battling its ravages.