The 21st century is the century of longevity. For the first time in history, it is reasonable for many of us to expect to live past 100 years. But with the benefit of a longer lifespan also come new challenges, including new complex situations and new roles in life.
One complexity that has increased with the aging of the population is the role of family caregiving. According to AARP, in 2020 more than 50 million Americans are unpaid caregivers for relatives or friends. This cohort often misunderstood or overlooked complex challenges and information needs.
The MIT AgeLab studies the experiences of caregivers through its CareHive Consortium, which conducts research using a panel of more than 1,000 volunteer caregiver participants. CareHive’s previous research projects have included surveys of the language caregivers use to describe their role, caregiver information seeking, and caregiver efforts to balance caring for a loved one and caring for themselves- same.
Businesses and nonprofits that aim to better understand and support caregivers form The CareHive Consortium. A current CareHive member is United Church Homes, an Ohio-based non-profit senior housing company.
In March, United Church Homes launched a new service called Naviguide, which pairs caregivers and their loved ones with a specially trained service coordinator. The development of Naviguide, according to leaders at United Church Homes, was inspired by MIT research.
AgeLab’s research has shown that the family caregiver is the primary decision maker in a household. “It’s not the senior at this stage who is the primary client,” says Dan Fagan, director of population health at United Church Homes. “She’s the oldest adult daughter,” who most likely is the one who has to care for an aging parent, often in addition to managing a career and raising a family.
NaviGuide Service Coordinators do not provide direct in-home services; instead, they help seniors navigate health care options, connect them to community services, and identify and seek solutions to emerging issues and challenges.
Caregiving is as much a logistical challenge as it is a physical, emotional and financial one, says Lisa D’Ambrosio, research scientist at MIT AgeLab. “Finding information about where you should go for help is a job in itself,” she says. “And that’s often the one that caregivers find themselves doing on their own.”
MIT AgeLab research has also led United Church Homes to offer Naviguide as a fixed monthly subscription service and to ensure that users can contact someone 24 hours a day. Importantly, the developers of Naviguide have realized the importance of the human element.
“What we’ve understood based on the research we’ve seen is that trust is critical to the success of anyone entering the lives and homes of our users,” said Terry Spitznagel, vice president and director. of the growth of United Church Homes. This idea has led to pairing each Naviguide customer with their own dedicated service coordinator – someone they will get to know and who, over time, will understand their situation as a caregiver. “Our customers may not even remember the name ‘Naviguide’, but they will remember their service coordinator,” says Spitznagel.
Joseph Coughlin, director of the MIT AgeLab, says Naviguide is an example of how human touch will remain paramount even as health technologies become more advanced. “New technologies will go a long way to filling the gaps in our care economy,” he says. “But there comes a time when high technology cannot replace high touch. Finding ways to provide accessible and personalized services to older people and their caregivers, and doing so in a scalable way, will be a key part of the future of care.
Naviguide is currently available in the Dayton and Columbus areas of Ohio, and United Church Homes plans to offer the service statewide within the next year. Employers have expressed interest in Naviguide as a potential benefits package. And area hospitals are looking to the program as a way to support outpatients and reduce readmission rates.
According to AARP, nearly 90% of seniors want to age in place—that is, to stay in their homes as long as they can. For United Church Homes, the trends heralded by this statistic and its learnings with MIT prompted the company to expand its offerings.
“United Church Homes has evolved over the past 106 years, but our mission to help seniors has always been our focus,” says the Reverend Kenneth Daniel, CEO of the company. “NaviGuide allows us to help the growing number of people who want to live independently longer but need help navigating through the support channels available to them.”
“Our goal has always been to serve seniors the way they want to be served,” says Fagan. “That changes with baby boomers and future generations. Consumers really want something different. The aging industry is changing.
Current and former caregivers interested in participating in MIT research are invited to join the CareHive research consortium.