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Hebrew SeniorLife study shows promise for technology’s role in easing caregiver stress

Diane F. Mahoney, Ph.D., director of Enhancing Caregiving through Technology at the Research and Training Institute of Hebrew SeniorLife, recently completed a three-year study in which she and a team of Institute researchers partnered with local businesses to test a program called Worker Interactive Networking (WIN). The WIN program was designed to help employees manage the additional task of caring for impaired senior family members alone at home. WIN provided on-line sources of caregiving support and a wireless home monitoring component to selected participants.   

·         The WIN project represents the first technology intervention in the country designed to help caregivers, who must also work outside the home, manage their dual responsibilities.

·         It is one of the first projects to test application of wireless home monitoring technology in real world situations involving actual working caregivers.

·         The WIN project is the longest pilot study of home monitoring technology to date, collecting real time data over a one-year period from a variety of homes across multiple states.

The results of this preliminary research are promising. The project team was successful in training research participants to use the WIN system, which they found easy to use.  According to the summative evaluation, conducted by external evaluators at Brandeis University’s National Center on Woman and Aging, “WIN participants showed a trend in reduced caregiver anxiety, a reduction in the number of hours caregivers feel “on duty” to provide care, more energy for work, more confidence in their role as caregivers, and improvement in feeling prepared to handle caregiver duties – all in spite of declining health status among care recipients.” 

How WIN worked:

The WIN system consisted of two components – a discussion group and home monitoring. The group, comprised of fellow participants, Hebrew SeniorLife experts and Alzheimer’s Association staff, answered worker questions about frailty via e-mail.

Motion sensors were also strategically placed in selected participants’ homes to monitor activities, such as whether a family member had gotten out of bed, eaten or taken medications. The sensors sent this electronic information every 30 minutes to a laptop computer set up in the home. The home computer then transmitted this information wirelessly to a central computer equipped with a unique software program that generated an activity report from the electronic data. The caregivers accessed the activity reports on the Internet and were able to determine whether or not everything seemed alright at home.

Caregiver stress is a serious problem. Contrary to public perception, the majority of frail older adults needing assistance with their activities of daily living are not institutionalized, but are cared for at home by primarily female family members. Those caring for family members who must also work outside the home are burdened with worry about the well-being of the person at home. Caregivers average three times as many physical and emotional stress symptoms as found in the general population and research has shown that persons experiencing strain in the caregiver role had a 63 percent higher mortality rate than those without this added responsibility.

“When funded by the U.S. Dept of Commerce, Technology Opportunities Program, the WIN project was acknowledged as a cutting-edge innovative program,” says Dr. Mahoney. “We joined an elite group of technology-based programs that seek to improve the public welfare through emerging technologies.”