Part of the Transforming Life as We Age Special Report
(Next Avenue invited all our 2016 Influencers in Aging to submit essays about the one thing they would like to change about aging in America. This is one of the essays.)
In this world, nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes, a quote attributed to Benjamin Franklin. I would like to add a third (near) certainty: that of caregiving and caregiver health.
In an Atlantic article, Jonathan Rauch wrote, “How can it be that so many people like me are so completely unprepared for what is, after all, one of life’s near certainties (caregiving)? What I needed was for the experts to find me and tell me what I needed. We should all be given time off work at age 40 to take a class on elder care.”
I was preparing for a lecture in the science curriculum at a local high school when I read Rauch’s article. I thought about how we make a lot of effort to teach CPR, the very critical life-saving skill. Fortunately, most of us never have to use it. I thought, why don’t we begin to teach caregiving skills that almost all of us will use at some point in our lives? Skills that we will need to help loved ones experiencing incontinence, dementia, falls and other chronic disease problems.
Passing on Knowledge About Caregiving
So I began to focus on the group I had the most experience with and am teaching — medical students, physicians, nurses and other disciplines involved in the care of the elderly. I partnered with a former Area Agency on Agency CEO to found the Lindsay Institute for Innovations in Caregiving.
We enlisted help from Virginia’s college and university students. The challenge we gave them was to invent an app or product to improve the health of caregivers.
For personal reasons, my initial focus was Alzheimer’s. This was a problem I had faced in my own home when I brought my mom, who had moderate Alzheimer’s, to live with my three teenagers, my spouse and me. I found myself highly stressed and not doing a good job as a caregiver.
The other reason I started there was because I had taken care of many caregivers of people with Alzheimer’s whose role was detrimental to their health. Recent studies have shown that doctors often don’t ask who is the caregiver or what the impact of being a caregiver has been on the individual who accompanies an Alzheimer’s patient to their office.
How Is the Caregiver Doing?
So in teaching students about caregiving, my rule No. 1 is: identify the caregiver. Next, record his or her health status and the impact that caregiving is having on it. Then, instruct that person in methods to support and maintain caregiver health.
When I have a question about my computer and its use, I usually call for help from the younger generation, my children. The Lindsay Institute for Innovations in Caregiving is an arm of public/private partnership nonprofit VirginiaNavigator and recognizes the important role to be played by technology in assisting the caregiver in dealing with some of problems facing them as caregivers. So to assist me in solving the issue of caregiver health I said: Why not get help from the technology users from the next generation and at the same time teach them about caregiving and caregiver health?
To accomplish this, our solution was to employ a technique that was just catching on with the next generation, a hackathon. No, it’s not chopping wood, but a way of leveraging technology to solve problems.
Competing to Improve Caregiver Health
We enlisted help from Virginia’s college and university students. They represented many different areas of expertise including medicine, nursing, engineering, social work and business. The challenge we gave them was to invent an app or product to improve the health of caregivers.
We provided them with information on caregiving and caregiver health and access to a campus faculty ambassador with a background in aging and health. Then our seven, six-member college teams assembled for a 25-hour marathon session in Richmond, Va. Here they participated in a seminar on caregiving and caregiver health, followed by the hack competition.
Then, in what proved to be a stroke of genius, we added to each team an active caregiver. The results of this move proved to be spectacular. The students sought input about caregiving and the caregiver often provided them with a lot of practical advice and storytelling about their real problems. Following the development and creation of their tech tools, the teams presented to, and were judged by, a panel of national experts and prizes were awarded. The resulting tech tools and apps are owned by the team.
But I think the real winning result was team chemistry. The caregivers said it was the first time they had been listened to about product use and development. In one case, the bond formed with the students resulted in the team offering to provide their matched-up caregiver respite to enjoy a well-deserved and overdue vacation.
Hackathons Praised by Caregivers and Students
After two successful hackathons, in the spring of 2015 and 2016, caregivers and students are unanimous in their praise of the value of the experience. Most importantly, the students said their knowledge and awareness of the issues involved in caregiving, and especially caregiver health, had increased tremendously.
The plan is to have them return to their respective schools and spread the word and then use this throughout their personal life and professional careers. We will monitor this.
The teams were offered a second round to apply the judges’ feedback to modify their tool and develop a more detailed business and financial plan. Experts in business and legal matters were made available to them. Following another round of critical judging, the winners received a cash prize and additional expert consulting to get their product or app closer to market.
The winning app from this second round competition focused on the importance of taking time out of the rigors of their daily life to partake in something they enjoy — a very important aspect in maintain caregiver health.
I am also excited to share with you that the Institute and VirginiaNavigator plan to continue the development of a caregiving curriculum for current and future medical staff. Its goal will be to educate them regarding the importance of the caregiver as part of the care team, caregiver health and community resources. For, quite simply, a healthy caregiver is a better caregiver.