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Technology Long Distance

By  Jennifer Bradley, Staff Writer

 

Technology is continually evolving, improving and keeping in step with fast-paced Americans. This is encouraging news for those caring for loved ones from afar.
Approximately five to seven million people are long-distance caregivers for their senior relatives, and experts say the number will double within 15 years. In a report by Lazelle E. Benefield and Cornelia Beck at the College of Nursing, University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, it states that long-distance caregivers live, on average, 450 miles from their loved one and travel seven hours to reach them. Amid the obstacles of distance, which ironically technology has created, family is still as important as ever, and technology also is working to patch the challenge, ensuring a loved one’s best possible health and home life.

Candid Camera
Remember the days of Dad’s good-old “family meetings”? Nowadays, these family meetings are taking place with the adult children calling the sit-down, and an even bigger revolution: by video camera.

Family conferences are a vital tool to caring for an elderly loved one. It doesn’t take much for a brother or sister to feel out of the loop and hurt feelings to creep in. Virtual family meetings help a senior communicate their wishes as well as maintain as much independence as possible. To fill this need, numerous companies have stepped in to facilitate just this type of communication.

Many of these family meetings take place online. One company offers a product that includes a maximum of 10 subscriptions for as little as $1/month per subscriber. The family members are then connected in a private, secure, online network and can communicate exclusively with each other whenever necessary.
Another conferencing option is video-phone technology which does not require Internet access, and can be utilized at a loved one’s home, doctor’s office, with a care manager, etc. It is versatile, affordable and easy for seniors unfamiliar or uncomfortable with the Internet.

In addition to meetings, the family dinner experience has gone digital. Still a prototype, expected on the market in the next two years, this technology could allow long-distance loved ones to share a meal, and even give the senior some verbal assistance with meal preparation.

The push of a button would notify the caregiver when his or her loved one is ready to eat, or prepare food. Cameras even can be positioned so it seems as if family members are at a continuous table, sharing a meal and each other’s company. 
Those promoting this technology say that the health benefits far exceed the social, however. Research has shown that eating with a family member, even if an image of them, gives a person a sense of belonging. This, in turn, helps with the loneliness and depression this senior population feels when living, and thus dining, alone.  A virtual family dinner also gives a caregiver a way to “check in” and observe firsthand their loved one’s emotional, cognitive and physical condition.

Camera Controversy
The benefits of video monitoring are well-known, but the privacy issues that accompany such technology should be considered by the caregiver. On the “Aging in Place Technology Watch” blog, author Laurie Orlov debates this topic in an article entitled” Web cameras and the elderly—whose right is it to decide?” 

The discussion revolves around a loved one’s right to privacy, even if the camera presence offers reassurance for a caregiver. “Assuming anyone is paying attention to these images as they’re streamed, or reviewing them if they’re aggregated on a server, this feels like a boundary has been crossed in the name of ‘preserving’ a parent’s right to remain in their home of choice,” she writes. “The right to stay, apparently, is not the right to be left alone.”

Motion sensors, which monitor a person’s movement, or alert an incoming party, Orlov argues, as well as code alert pendants, may be enough surveillance for a caregiver to feel confident and a loved one to be safe. A variety of opinions exist on the pros and cons of these surveillance products, but the best approach is to ask a loved one what amount of monitoring they feel is appropriate. If they don’t like being part of the “Big Brother” effect, around-the-clock video may not be for them.

On the Web
Many seniors today have loved ones communicating via the Internet, but are unsure themselves how to navigate and perhaps feel overwhelmed by the technology. This often leaves them left out of daily conversations taking place within their family.

A newer offering on the market today is called simple email, which a variety of companies have found a large customer base for. This technology allows anyone unfamiliar with computers to use the Internet immediately and easily.

In many of the systems, a caregiver must install software, which then transforms the computer background into a “point and click” simple access system. A senior may see tabs for photos, email, news, and more topics that are easy to view, with no Internet browsing or downloading necessary. Caregivers and other friends or family can send digital images or letters to their loved one, offering a bit of comfort and companionship from miles away.

Other products don’t even involve a computer, but a fax machine, or specially designed device that offers wireless communication. Companies have also developed senior communication services which use an existing phone line to send and receive messages.

One such service says it’s a great way to send a loved one appointment or medication reminders, to-do lists, and other notes such as “remember to change clothes” or “take a bath this evening.”  In addition, these technologies are offering a way for grandchildren, who communicate only through digital means, an excuse-free way to reconnect.

Home Health Monitoring
The social aspect of a long-distance caregiving relationship is very important, but for the senior population, just as vital as their medical care. Technological advances are offering caregivers a way to keep abreast of their loved one’s medical status from miles away. In the past few years, the number of products on the market has exploded, and because the technology is more common, the cost has decreased.

Livestrong.com divides the home health products into three categories. The first is vital signs monitoring devices. A tabletop monitor can be used with either a land-line phone, or cable Internet connection, and measures vitals such as temperature, pulse, blood sugar, weight, EKG, etc. The device even alerts a loved one to the need to perform a daily vitals check.

Once the data is collected, it is electronically submitted to a center staffed with medical personnel, and a summary is posted on a private Web site, which caregivers have access to. When a cause for concern arises, the appropriate action is taken, from scheduling a physician’s appointment to calling for immediate assistance. The vitals’ monitors are not available for sale to the public yet, but available through home health agencies, clinics and physicians.

The second category includes mobile vital sign monitors. These are established through a cell phone and monitor mainly heart function. The user wears a watch or other small device, which tracks heart rate and records the information just as with the home monitors. These monitors are not new to the market, but the ability to connect to a service center, which tracks the information, is.

The third category the Web site lists is reminder technologies. Most of these are for medication-taking. Whether the tool is a vibrating watch, timer, electronic pill dispenser, the options are plenty. Computerized pill bottles even track consumption, to protect from overdose and also alert a caregiver when supplies are low. 

Whether for a loved one at home, or on the go, technology is available to keep an eye open for the long-distance caregiver. Just as every person is different, every loved one has unique health monitoring needs. Research the options, and design a system that works best.

Research in Full Swing
The University of Miami’s Center on Aging is developing solutions to facilitate even more advanced technology. CREATE, the Center for Research and Education on Aging and Technology Enhancement, is a multi-site center involving the University of Miami, Georgia Institute of Technology, the University of Pittsburgh, and Florida State University.

The center’s goal is to help older people  adapt successfully to the information age and ensure that they receive the maximum benefits from existing and emerging technologies.

A wide range of technologies is being discussed and developed, including:

  • Technology-based work (telecommuting)
  • Home/service settings - making system user friendly
  • Health care information and decision making
  • Life-long learning and creativity
  • Enhancing communication and reducing isolation

The effectiveness of technology in assisting with home- and community-based care
Another initiative of the Miami-based program is REACH, which is evaluating the effectiveness of family-based, in-home therapy through the computerized telephone system, CTIS (computer telephone integration system). The CTIS system facilitates communication among family members (especially distant family members) and other caregivers, enhances communication between the therapist and caregiver, and provides access to formal support programs when needed.
Around the world, senior-aged loved ones are benefitting from technology research.  In Japan, a corporation has developed a toilet which analyzes blood sugar levels, weight, and even features a blood pressure cuff.

Whether in the United States or across the Pacific, long-distance caregivers face the same challenges. Technology is only improving and as it does, it eases the burden for these families, while encouraging communication and good health practices.

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