Providers’ Outreach to Caregivers Must Go Beyond Engagement
Former First Lady Rosalyn Carter spoke from experience when she said, “You have either been a caregiver; you are a caregiver; you will be a caregiver; or someone will care for you.” As we continue to explore the future of geriatric medicine and American healthcare, it’s clear that family caregivers play a significant role that providers must address. According to the Valuing the Invaluable: 2015 Update, a report from the AARP Public Policy Institute, unpaid family caregivers in the U.S. took on the equivalent of $470 billion worth of care for parents, spouses and other aging adults in 2013. In the absence of such devoted caregivers, a flood of geriatric patients would inundate the healthcare system. Clearly, providers need patient engagement strategies that focus on these important, and often unsupported, members of seniors’ care teams.
Understanding the Needs of Caregivers
Healthcare providers recognize the need to enlist family caregivers as part of the healthcare team, but how do you go about it — especially when these caregivers are often thrust, unprepared, into that role?
Caregivers often describe the experience as an emotional rollercoaster that leaves them feeling mentally and physically depleted. Now, imagine trying to get a message through to someone riding that rollercoaster. As neither a healthcare professional nor the direct consumer of services, how can this person, who is so critical to the health outcomes of elderly patients, be engaged and activated? Your strategy needs to recognize and address caregivers’ challenges, in order to have a positive impact on the patients receiving care.
Family caregivers need training.
In a blog post earlier this year, the Pew Charitable Trusts highlights a growing trend among the states — laws that require healthcare providers to provide training for a designated family caregiver before a patient is released. One such law passed in Oklahoma in 2014 was inspired after the wife of a patient found herself ill-prepared to transport her husband safely. Only a few weeks after his release, in her struggle to move her husband from his wheelchair to the car, the patient suffered a mishap that broke his leg. She told legislators, “They’re sending you home, and you’re thinking, ‘What?’ Nobody instructs you, and says, ‘This is what’s coming home with you and how to use it.’”
Since then, 12 states have passed similar legislation and two more have bills in the works.
While in the above case, the caregiver from Oklahoma was thrust into the role unexpectedly after a serious motorcycle accident left her husband physically and mentally impaired, some caregivers move gradually towards the same problem. They may begin by simply providing a loved one with activities like grocery shopping or paying bills, but as the patient’s health declines, caregivers take on more complex tasks.
According to an AARP survey, almost 50 percent of family caregivers “… administered medications, cared for wounds, prepared food for special diets, used monitors or operated specialized medical equipment.” Yet few reported receiving any training on how to manage at-home care, even after multiple hospitalizations. Ultimately, family caregivers would be better equipped to manage such tasks if they had basic training, and hospitals would benefit from fewer costly ER visits and re-hospitalizations.
Family caregivers need support.
The stress of taking care of elderly family members has a lasting impact. Caregivers often neglect their own health because they are focused on tending to the needs of someone else. As we noted in a previous post, providing on-going care for patients — particularly those with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia — often leads to depression or anxiety, elevated blood pressure, insomnia and other chronic medical complaints for the caregivers. While caregivers can connect with organizations like AARP or Caregiver.org for advice or peer forums to share tips from others in the same situation, those sources of information cannot proactively address the medical issues that caregivers encounter. Why aren’t more hospitals among those organizations? After all, unpaid caregivers often coordinate appointments with healthcare providers, so providers are ideally suited to offer support.
Some hospitals create support groups for caregivers, but what of caregivers who are unable to attend such groups due to time constraints or prefer the convenience and anonymity of online forums? Like any other group of people with a shared situation, caregivers have different motivations and attitudes towards healthcare, and a one-size-fits-all engagement strategy will fail to activate a significant number within the group. When healthcare providers begin to look at the caregiver audience based on psychographics, for instance, they can develop more relevant outreach plans that engage and activate patients with the right message via the right channel so they are better able to care for the health of their elderly loved ones — and themselves.