University program focuses on care for the caregiver

Liz Seegert

About Liz Seegert

Liz Seegert (@lseegert), is AHCJ’s topic editor on aging. Her work has appeared in NextAvenue.com, Journal of Active Aging, Cancer Today, Kaiser Health News, the Connecticut Health I-Team and other outlets. She is a senior fellow at the Center for Health Policy and Media Engagement at George Washington University and co-produces the HealthCetera podcast.

Photo: r-hol via Flickr

Anyone who has helped an ailing loved one knows that the job of a caregiver is not easy. When cognitive decline is part of the mix, the job becomes even more challenging.

Researchers and occupational therapy students at the University of Buffalo (UB) are developing a model to help ease some of the burdens on those caring for frail elders with dementia. They are partnering with regional PACE (Program of All Inclusive Care for the Elderly) programs to meet the unique needs of older caregiving spouses.

The goal is to provide support services that can give a caregiver greater confidence in their ability to look after their loved one. That means that the person under care can stay at home longer and put off the day they may need to enter a nursing facility. The PACE care model provides community-based care and support for older adults with chronic care needs, rather than institutional-based care.

Many caregivers are spouses who are similar in age to care recipients and may have physical ailments like hip problems or muscle weakness requiring assistance themselves, according to Machiko R. Tomita, a clinical professor of rehabilitation science in UB’s School of Public Health and Health Professions. Tomita is a gerontologist who developed the Home Safety Self-Assessment Tool (HSSAT) to help prevent falls in older adults. The test has been translated into five languages and used in more than 40 U.S. states.

Under the UB program, occupational therapy graduate students will conduct home visits to assess caregiver needs and challenges that can include fatigue, burnout or fall risk. The visits give students a first-hand look at specific caregiving scenarios and improve their understanding of any emotional and physical issues the caregivers face. Students, faculty and researchers will develop targeted solutions for complex caregiving challenges, such as encouraging the use of a gait belt when transferring their loved one out of bed or helping them walk.

Post-test follow-up at the one and two-month marks will assess the effectiveness of the interventions, whether the proposed solutions are working and caregiver burden or depression has improved.

The UB project comes as an increasing number of people assume the role of caregiver for the frail elderly, and dementia cases increase. According to the Family Caregiver Alliance, approximately 44 million family caregivers provided $470 billion worth of unpaid care in the United States in 2013. The Alzheimer’s Association estimates that about 15.7 million adult family caregivers care for someone who has Alzheimer’s disease or other dementia.

If the UB program is successful, it could become a model for PACE programs nationally. Here are some questions for journalists to answer when writing about similar programs in their community:

  • How are local universities preparing future health professionals to understand and address family caregiving?
  • Do any of them have programs planned or underway that partner with an aging services organization or advocacy group to help keep older adults out of institutional care, such as this one in Maryland? (Your local area Agency on Aging (AoA) may be able to point you in the right direction.)
  • What else are universities and colleges to increase their students’ awareness of age-related issues and needs?

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