Technology, new apps extend caregiving networks

What’s it going to take to help older adults stay out of institutions and age at home?

One solution is social caregiving, according to Charles Saunders, M.D., the chief executive officer of emerging businesses at Aetna. At a panel on consumer engagement at the World Health Care Congress in Washington, D.C., on Monday, Saunders said that providers and payers must captivate and collaborate with the community of caregivers.

“It’s going to be increasingly important with the aging population that we try and allow people to remain independent as long as possible and keep them out of institutions. The way to do that is to get them active and engaged but, more importantly, to get the support of their caregivers,” he said.

The “sandwich generation” is already taking care of grandma at home, he said. Citing collaborative crowd-sourcing sites such as Patients Like Me as a model, he said Aetna is building applications that allow caregivers to interact with insurance companies, hospitals, clinicians, and with other individuals in their immediate social circle to create a team-based approach to health.

“An older adult can define her own micro-social network that she relies on to stay well,” he said. Tapping into this social circle extends caregiving networks in ways that 21st century consumers are accustomed to – with immediacy, ease, and interaction with others in their communities.

A typical situation where social caregiving may be ideal is when grandma gets discharged from the hospital.

“Let’s suppose she needs a walker, five medications filled, and meals set up for the next two weeks,” Saunders said. The primary caregiver can blast out a “to do” list via an app to grandma’s micro-network and ask everyone to sign up for a task and check in when it’s completed. At the same time, a message is sent out to grandma, which she retrieves on her iPad, letting her know she’s taken care of and who to thank.

Social caregiving is really about activating an individual’s micro-community. “That’s what needed to fill in the gaps for people who can’t take care of themselves,” Saunders concluded.

Aetna and Patients Like Me recently announced a one-year pilot program that directs Aetna members to the PatientsLikeMe website to connect with others who have the same health conditions, with the goal of improving disease management and wellness.

Other mobile app companies are working on capabilities to tap into an individual’s a social network for caregiving help. It’s a growing issue and potentially huge market for app developers. According to The Forum on Public Policy, 25 percent of U.S. households, or 22 million people, are involved in family caregiving for an older relative or friend, typically a 77-year old woman with one or more chronic conditions that interferes with activities of daily living. Almost three-fourths of caregivers are women; about 40 percent are also caring for under-age children.

Mobile and online technology are also ideal for keeping the estimated 5 million to 7 million long-distance caregivers engaged. As more of these tools are developed, it’s hoped that caregivers will find it easier to engage with the entire health team, to keep their parent or other elderly relative healthy, safe, and at home.

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