For well over a decade, we’ve been tantalized by digital technology’s potential to assist family caregivers. They surely could use help managing the enormous challenges of caring for a loved one. And enterprising technologists could get very rich creating the right gizmos.
Yet, while digital tech has profoundly changed the rest of our lives over the past few decades, it has done remarkably little for caregivers. And in some important ways it may have made their lives even tougher.
We can build prototype smart cars but still can’t find a reliable way to help a frail elder take a pill. Telemedicine devices make it possible for a physician in the U.S. to diagnose a complex condition for a patient in an African village. But millions of Americans with congestive heart failure still needlessly land in hospital emergency departments simply because they are not being weighed regularly on a bathroom scale.
Last Spring, the National Alliance for Caregiving brought a couple of dozen smart people together in Palo Alto (where else?) to discuss how technology can help family members care for elders or younger relatives with disabilities. Today, the group released a report on those meetings. It is illuminating, not least because the participants seem to acknowledge how little digital tech has done for caregivers.
Techno thinkers don’t normally acknowledge limits. And the report is filled with ideas for future innovation and, of course, next steps. But this caregiving business is really hard, even for Silicon Valley.
The roundtable did generate some potential ideas, including an “intelligent family care assistant”—think Siri with lots of knowledge about both recipients of care and their caregivers, but without the irony. They also played around with ideas like wearable monitors (a substitute for that bathroom scale perhaps) and technology that better connects family caregivers with doctors and hospitals.
Perhaps most important, the group seemed to recognize the need to better understand—or, in techno-jargon, map– what caregivers do. This turns out to be pretty complicated but absolutely necessary.
These are all important ideas, but many constraints to broad acceptance of digital solutions may lay elsewhere.
For instance, the report had surprisingly little to say about economics and some of it was wrong. It concluded, “consumers are willing to pay out of pocket for solutions that promise to ease or improve their lives.” That may be true for a 99 cent app that makes reservations at a trendy restaurant, but when it comes to caregiving help, it is very often not true.
For example, few people will pay for caregiving advice. They’d rather make a $100,000 mistake picking the wrong nursing facility than pay a knowledgeable geriatric care manager $500 for a consultation before they choose that facility.
They may visit caregiver websites, but they won’t pay for the information. That means the business model of many sites is to sell ads or, worse, charge providers for placement. As a result, much of the information on those sites is self-serving junk. But consumer behavior says they’d rather read rubbish than pay for objective information.
Similarly, building better links between medical professionals and family caregivers is a great idea. But who will pay? For that matter, even if a consumer is willing to buy a wearable device to monitor her health status, who will pay a medical practice to monitor all that data?
The group did note one more important phenomenon, if only in passing. And that is how technology has made caregiving harder. By creating the 24/7 workday, technology gives employed family members even less time to care for their loved ones. That’s probably not what any of us have in mind when we think about technology and caregiving, but it is a reality.
Sitdowns like this one are extremely useful because they help the geeks understand what family caregivers really need. But after all those years of expectations, this one showed just little technology has done to help, at least so far.