With the advancement of technology, our society now has virtual banking, virtual classrooms, virtual business meetings—and also virtual caregiving.
With technology becoming more ubiquitous in the caregiving space, it is not surprising that there has been a rise in digital caregiving solutions over the last several years. However, it’s important to note: Virtual caregiving is not a substitute for in-person caregiving. Quite the contrary, it’s a way to supplement in-person caregiving to keep our elders more connected as well as safer through such technological solutions as audio and video communication, medical alerts—even remote house calls with medical professionals.
Today’s digital caregiving solutions make it possible for a greater number of elders to retain their independence. Depending upon the level of care required, such emerging technologies as remote health monitoring are giving elders the option of remaining in their homes.
One of the major advantages of digital caregiving solutions is affordability. For those who cannot afford to move into assisted living or other group living environments for elders, digital care options may enable families to meet their loved one’s care needs at a fraction of the cost.
“The real challenge for seniors, as I see it, is financial,” says Dr. Allan “Chip” Teel, a family physician with a practice in geriatric care and author of “Alone and Invisible No More: How Grassroots Community Action and 21st Century Technologies Can Empower Elders to Stay in Their Homes and Lead, Healthier, Happier Lives.”
“Statistically, probably half of people over the age of 65 are living on less than $1,500. I’ve seen numbers that as many as 40% have less than $10,000 in total assets. That’s typically the cost of one month in a nursing home.”
A long-term assisted living solution is thus out of reach for many financially strapped seniors, Teel adds, unless they reach a medical crisis and have so little money that they qualify for their state’s Medicaid program.
“I’ve been in this space for the better part of 12 to 15 years,” Teel says, “and I don’t think that’s the way elder care should be managed.”
Teel cites an AARP survey, which found that of those seniors currently needing care, only 5% live in nursing homes and 4% in assisted living facilities. “Ninety-one percent either live on their own or with family or friends, so at-home care solutions that are robust and affordable are essential,” he says.
A Multi-Faceted Approach
Teel’s insights in the eldercare market are informed by his current geriatric primarycare practice. He also founded a small network of seven assisted living homes, which has allowed him to gain insights into the care needs of seniors.
To give elders an alternative to moving into assisted living, Teel founded Full Circle America (FCA) more than a decade ago. Based in Nobleboro, Maine, the company offers caregiving support services using a multi-faceted approach that combines in-person care from families and volunteers with the use of technology, social networking, and life management tools.
Teel describes FCA as a five-pronged approach that includes the following:
- Personal support, provided by family members, friends, and other individuals in the elder’s life and supplemented by FCA through a network of volunteers. “We’re able to focus on and expand the individual’s circle of care,” Teel explains. “It’s a little more robust than leaning on an adult daughter to care for you.”
- Digital technology. Teel points to the growing popularity of easy-to-use devices such as Google Home and Amazon Echo Dot that allow seniors to access information, set reminders, play games, and create a smart home to turn off lights, lock doors, and adjust thermostats. “We deploy a number of devices like that and are able to automate part of an elder’s life,” Teel reports.
- Vital signs/medication management. Vital signs collection includes weight, blood pressure, pulse, oxygen saturation, and analysis by a health care team, while medication reminders come by phone or programmed pillbox.
- Robust telemedicine, which includes video house calls by Skype or another video connection. Through these video interactions, seniors can have contact with physician specialists in the convenience of their home.
- Video monitoring, which includes cameras, motion sensors, and door sensors.
FCA gives seniors access to this caregiving support through a choice of several monthly packages, with services including video check-ins four times a day, family access to video/activity data, a 24/7 call center, volunteer/mentoring calls, monthly reports to the family, and a semi-annual quality of life survey. The basic package breaks down to a cost of as little as $8 a day, while a standard package with more frequent calls and geriatric care consultation is about $13 a day. The packages require a one-time purchase of the video monitoring equipment mentioned above.
An optional chronic care management package includes additional services, such as medication reminders, vital signs collection and analysis, assistance with diet and activities to improve chronic disease management, virtual house calls through a video connection, and a caregiver app that provides instance communication between FCA staff and the individual’s personal care team or family.
The Value of Technology
Teel points out how valuable video check-ins can be to seniors living alone. “Video monitoring works best as a supplement to family members who are doing their own check-ins,” he explains. “We do video spot checks every four hours, and we can also monitor someone while a family member goes out to the store. That’s extremely important if someone needs us to keep an eye on their mom who has dementia. It can be a lifesaver.”
While some view technology as remote and impersonal, Teel observes that using digital solutions is a way to bring families closer together. As an example, he points out, “A son who is living 1,000 miles away may feel too far removed to be part of his parent’s caregiving. But through video technology, he can be a more active participant than he ever was before.”
A network of volunteers—many of whom are seniors themselves—provides the personal connection that is vital to those who live alone. The goal is to provide older individuals in the home with better quality of life and purposeful living, and at the same time, offer greater peace of mind to their adult children.
The FCA approach can be deployed to assist families in communities across America, Teel reports. “We very much believe we’ve created something whose time has come and can be a tremendous resource for elders and their families living anywhere.”
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