On-screen dementia support

Support for dementia is evolving - meet telehealth technology; the future of dementia care.

Written by Dr Kate Laver
nephew holding strong grandfather's hand

Technology has transformed how we communicate in all aspects of our lives. For people with dementia, new telehealth solutions could soon provide greater support that will make a real difference for both patient and carer.

‘Telehealth’ is the delivery of health services or information through telecommunication technologies like videoconferencing. This can help remove many of the common barriers to health access, such as for people living in remote, rural and regional areas, or those who find it difficult to leave their homes.

Flinders University researcher Dr Kate Laver is leading a new project that focuses on taking evidence-based interventions for people with dementia into their homes using a telehealth program. This project was recently awarded a NHMRC-ARC Dementia Research Development Fellowship as part of the Government’s ‘Boosting Dementia Research’ initiative.

Here, Dr Kate Laver shares a bit more about her work.

What was the path that led you to this research project?

I am an occupational therapist and spent about 10 years working with older people in rehabilitation and home settings prior to undertaking a PhD. My experiences as both a clinician and researcher have highlighted that there are a number of barriers in translating intervention programs that have been shown to be effective in research studies into clinical practice.

In the last few years I have been fortunate enough to work with leaders in the fields of telehealth and dementia care. This research provides the opportunity to test whether telehealth may be an effective solution to overcome some of the challenges in dementia care, particularly for people in rural and remote areas.

Describe your research and what you are aiming to achieve.

There is good evidence from working with families and carers of people with dementia, that providing education, collaborative problem solving and building skills in caregiving for dementia is beneficial for both the person with dementia and their families and carers. These programs can improve the person’s independence and reduce carer stress.

Programs that have been shown to be effective are typically provided by a skilled professional over a number of consultations in the person’s home environment. These sorts of programs are not widely available. The research will examine whether the programs could be delivered with the assistance of telehealth. This means that the skilled professional would still visit the house for the first couple of consultations but the remaining consultations would be provided via telehealth (ie. videoconferencing using a tablet computer).

We think that a telehealth program would be less expensive to deliver and may be more convenient for the person with dementia and their family. However, we need to determine whether the program is still as effective when delivered remotely.

"Common symptoms include difficulties in memory and communication, changes in mood and behaviour and a gradual decline in ability to manage everyday activities."

What are the most common symptoms of dementia?

Common symptoms include difficulties in memory and communication, changes in mood and behaviour and a gradual decline in ability to manage everyday activities. The symptoms of dementia range in severity; people are often described as being in a mild, moderate or severe stage of dementia.

What are some misconceptions people have about dementia?

Most people with dementia have mild to moderate symptoms and live in private dwellings rather than residential care. Families and friends often provide a lot of support to help the person with dementia to remain at home for as long as possible.

People with dementia have increasing difficulty in expressing themselves and communicating their needs and wishes. When their needs or wishes are not understood the person may appear to be agitated or distressed. One of the most important aspects of dementia care is educating families and friends and paid care workers about these changes in communication and providing strategies to communicate as effectively as possible.

What are some of the key challenges people with dementia (and their carers) face while living at home?

Symptoms change with time and it can be difficult to adapt to new circumstances. In the early phases of the condition people with dementia commonly face difficulty with things like getting out and about in the community, shopping and managing finances and their health. Over time, activities such as cooking, tidying and even showering and dressing become more difficult. People with dementia find it increasingly difficult to communicate their needs.

"In people aged 65 years and over, approximately 9% have a diagnosis of dementia."

Dementia in Australia – a snapshot

  • It is estimated that there were approximately 300,000 people living with a diagnosis of dementia in Australia in 2011.
  • The number of people living with a diagnosis of dementia is predicted to rise to about 900,000 in 2050.
  • In people aged 65 years and over, approximately 9% have a diagnosis of dementia.
  • Dementia is slightly more common in women than in men.
  • 8% of people living with dementia in Australia are under 65 years of age (an estimated 23,900 Australians in 2011).
  • It is estimated that 70% of people with dementia live in the community while the remainder live in residential care accommodation.
Written by Dr Kate Laver

Dr Kate Laver is an occupational therapist with experience working with older people in home, hospital and rehabilitation settings.

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