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Smartphone App to Support Alzheimer’s Caregivers

iPhone in hand

(nvtriab, Pixabay)

25 March 2016. Researchers at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis are designing a smartphone app that taps social media to assist caregivers providing help for people with Alzheimer’s disease. The team of IUPUI social work professor David Wilkerson, gerontology psychiatrist Daniel Bateman, and informatics professor Erin Brady are supported by an innovation grant from the Regenstrief Institute in Indianapolis that studies information technology in health care.

Alzheimer’s disease is taking an increasing toll on the population, becoming the 6th leading cause of death in the U.S., affecting 5.3 million people, with women making up almost 2 in 3 of those having Alzheimer’s disease. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, the disease cost the U.S. some $226 billion in 2015, with those costs expected to rise to $1.1 trillion by 2050.

A key factor contributing to those rising costs is the personal care needed for people with Alzheimer’s disease, often provided by family or friends of those individuals. Alzheimer’s Association estimates some 17.9 billion hours of unpaid care was given by caregivers in 2014, with a value of nearly $218 billion, about 8 times the total revenues of McDonalds in 2013. Over half of primary caregivers of people with dementia are taking care of their own parents, with about 4 in 10 caregivers (41%) earning $50,000 a year or less. Caregivers themselves experience high rates of emotional stress, with about 40 percent suffering from depression.

Wilkinson, Bateman, and Brady are writing their smartphone app to harness microvolunteering, a practice where individuals offer small chunks of their time, usually through social networks. People needing help can pose questions to a group of volunteer assistants, who provide answers when the volunteers are online. Microvolunteering is often used with advocacy groups for individuals with limited time available, such as workers and parents of young children, to offer help to their favorite causes.

To design the app, the IUPUI team is recruiting 4 groups of 5 to 8 Alzheimer’s caregivers, who will provide questions they face related to information needed or emotional support. Each group will have a Facebook account, and members of each group will use Facebook to discuss and agree on a set of questions to pose to the larger Facebook community of microvolunteers.

Those microvolunteers will then use the app to provide answers to the caregivers’ questions, which will be fed back to the caregivers’ groups for evaluation, with the most relevant answers highlighted. The test period for the app is expected to begin in May 2016.

“If our intervention can increase support,” says Wilkerson in a university statement, “it can potentially improve caregiver health and, in conjunction with primary health care interventions, extend the amount of time that people with Alzheimer’s can remain at home.”

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