Outreach to Caregivers (2008)

Outreach to Caregivers

Marlene Jenkins saw the ad in the newspaper about a VA pilot program to help people involved in caregiving for veterans at home.

One could participate, even if it was hard to leave the house. That was certainly her situation, between dealing with her own bad eyesight and tending to her husband, a Korean War veteran whose increasing confusion made him sometimes forget about his recently broken hip. The VA Medical Center and the doctors who work there had always helped Fred. Now, it seemed, they wanted to help her help him too. She picked up the phone.

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Outreach to Caregivers

The program, overseen by Emory geriatrics experts Bettye Rose Connell and Ted Johnson (pictured above), is one of eight projects funded nationally last year by the Department of Veterans Affairs. The program's purpose was to support veterans' caregivers at home.

In an earlier study, Emory/VA researchers realized that many caregivers were eager, almost desperate, to participate in such studies but couldn't manage the travel. So the investigators designed this study to go to them.

Within a month Jenkins was using what Connell called "telehealth": information and questions that arrived through a home-messaging device, a simple computer connected to their home phone. Much of the information was useful in tending to Fred, but the parts that occasionally brought unexpected tears to her eyes were when they asked about her, if she were sleeping well, for example, and suggested what she might do to sleep better.

This project builds on existing programs within the VA that use home-messaging systems to help manage disease. Designed to help veterans with diabetes and congestive heart failure, they are being expanded to include materials to support the caregiver, says Connell. "We get feedback from both patient and caregiver about how well they understand the information and the kind of help both need. Some answers are immediately flagged and sent to the patient's health care provider to alert about possible problems."

The overall goal, she says, is to find out if this technology helps caregivers in their role: Do they have information they need to recognize a crisis? Do they handle simple problems without calling 911? Does the technology change caregivers' own health outcomes for the good? The data are not in yet, but Jenkins has some feedback for the researchers. She feels less isolated, less unsure about what she is doing, reassured to learn that her own problems are normal and can sometimes be addressed. She feels connected and more in charge. She also likes knowing that as a research participant she may be helping others like her.