Governments are relying heavily on family caregivers (FCs) to care for older adults and reduce the demands made of formal health and social care systems. Under increasing pressure, sustainability of FC’s unpaid care work has become a pressing issue. A recent study explored FCs’ care-related work goals, and describes how those goals do, or do not, link to technology.
Canada’s population is aging, with a recent estimate predicting that 21% of residents will be over the age of 65 by 2040. As elsewhere, this demographic trend has brought with it both an increase in the prevalence of chronic diseases and disabilities, and a shift on the part of health care systems from acute to community-based care delivery. In the context of this shift, Family Caregivers (FCs) have become central to governmental efforts to reduce demands on formal health and social care systems. FC’s are defined as any relative, partner, friend or neighbor who has a significant personal relationship with, and provides a broad range of assistance to an older person or an adult with a chronic or disabling condition. In Canada,it is estimated that there are 5.4 million FCs included as not only adult children caring for parents, but also people caring for grandparents, spouses, extended kin, friends and neighbours. The monetary value of FC’s unremunerated work is estimated at $66.5 billion annually.
In this context, improving the sustainability of unpaid care work has become an area of intense interest. FCs view caregiving as sustainable when they are able to strike a favourable balance between the rewards and demands of caregiving amidst their other competing responsibilities. Technology-based interventions are showing the potential to support FCs caring for older adults – especially those caring for persons with dementia. For instance, internet-based monitoring systems — consisting of cameras and sensors and aimed at improving the safety of older adults with dementia as they continue to live at home – have improved outcomes for FCs. Specifically, researchers found that the extended free time and peace of mind experienced by these FCs helped improve their quality of life. In another study, GPS tracking technology was shown to help people in the early stages of dementia and their FCs feel less stressed and worried. As such, many policy makers and commercial developers have come to see technology as a panacea that will enhance the sustainability of FCs’ caregiving.
This study, from the University of Calgary, focused on understanding the holistic goals of FCs who provide care to older adults, and how these goals do, or do not, link to FCs’ views on technology as a potential support mechanism. The study was conduced in Canada with 599 recruits. It identified two care quality improvement goals of FCs providing care to older adults: enhancing and safeguarding their caregiving capacity.
The findings show that a range of low and high technology suggestions made by FCs in the study, demand an increased policy and production attention to technological and social solutions to the fragmentation of the support services system. Participants envisioned technology that had the potential to improve the care FCs provided by giving greater knowledge of available support services and in-the-moment tactics to manage challenging behaviors. However, the present state of commercial development has focused on addressing specific challenges in caregiving such as emotional support and education as well as specific physical challenges (e.g. mobility aids, monitoring devices).
Future research and development needs to investigate how technology can be harnessed to respond directly to FCs goals, and not the assumptions product designers make about them. Future technology research needs to investigate how fragmented support services might be better integrated to support FCs through the creation of advanced, online context-specific search engines as well as algorithmic learning services such as Huddol or user-directed assistance applications and platforms (e.g. Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa). The findings also suggest the credibility and trust development challenges that both for-profit, and not-for-profit, peer support platforms may encounter as they seek to build online communities of FCs, and support one-to-one coaching.