Eldercare: how technology can help employees care for grandparents remotely

Eldercare is affecting more workers as people live longer, meaning staff must juggle work and caring responsibilities. Supportive technologies such as telecare and remote health monitoring can help, argues Dr Malcolm J Fisk.

While more people living longer is a cause for celebration, the demographic reality is that many of us in our working lives are likely, at some point, to be carers for our parents or grandparents. Already more than three million employees juggle work with caring. This figure is forecast to double – with three in five of the working population expected to be carers by 2030.

Employees having to give up work to become full-time carers costs UK employers £1.3 billion a year, according to the Carers Trust. There are, of course, also implications for their incomes, health and wellbeing.

Carers providing regular and high levels of care are at a 23% higher risk of a stroke, statistics from Carers Trust show; they are also more likely to need to use their savings, re-mortgage their home or downsize to help meet the costs of care.

The reality of caring can be a mixture of isolation and family wrangling over who is doing the looking after, where people are going to live, what ongoing healthcare is needed and how it is all going to be paid for.

This can lead to disagreements, crises and sometimes responses that may result in elderly relatives moving into care homes. In such circumstances, the NHS and social care services are often not in a position to be the support service for families.

Because of the pressures on our traditional health and care services, new ideas and approaches are needed to help people find a better balance between their caring roles and work. Employers can play an important part in this by:

  • showing understanding of the position of many of their employees;
  • reflecting that understanding through, where appropriate, flexible working arrangements; and
  • enabling employees who are carers to remotely monitor and support parents, grandparents or others from the workplace.

Such remote support can be facilitated through online services accessed from desk-top or portable devices. Some of these services come under the umbrella term “tele­health”. They carry particular interest for employers because they offer the opportunity that arises through new technologies whereby employees, because they are able to keep in touch with older relatives, can establish a better balance between their work and caring responsibilities.

Telehealth is concerned with the way that people can access or be provided with health or support services regardless of their location. This includes telecare and remote monitoring. And because many of the technologies (including mobile devices) give people access to social as well as service networks, this has opened up the opportunity both for “remote care”. It also allows older people themselves to use the technology to access information or support and, crucially, to maintain their engagement in family or social networks.

However, there is currently a lack of awareness of what specific services are available and practical.

A study by Employers for Carers and Carers UK (“Caring at a Distance”, 2011) has suggested that employers were looking for more practical help and advice from external care and support services about supportive technologies such as telecare and remote health monitoring.

The study pointed to the potential benefit when such technologies are harnessed by employees regardless of the extent and nature of any support they (or their elderly relatives) might receive from statutory services.

Start-up company Tutella has created a new app that can potentially respond to this challenge. The app enables the creation of networks for support. The company was started by health entrepreneur and adviser to the NHS on clinical innovation, Paul Gaudin, and it follows his experience when both his parents needed to go into hospital for long-term care.

Apps that help family and neighbour networks link their members with professional advice and knowledge can help employees with care responsibilities. Private social networks for family members and the parents and grandparents mean they can share information, and coordinate and organise key aspects of their lives, including practical or personal help when required.

Another function of a personalised network is that it can enable 24/7 video access to a GP or health practitioner, and facilitates access to expert advice on property and funding, finances and legal issues.

The potential of telehealth to support employees who are also carers is attracting increasing interest from employers. It can offer a low-cost means of supporting wider employee wellbeing, and reducing the levels of absence and staff turnover. This means employees are better able to find a balance between their work and caring responsibilities.

Dr Malcolm J Fisk is senior research fellow at the Centre for Computing and Responsible Research, De Montfort University, and director of Telehealth Quality Group EEIG. Email: [email protected]

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