Individualised support for carers of people with dementia could soon be arriving in family homes via screens.
Flinders University researcher Dr Kate Laver, recently awarded a Dementia Research Development Fellowship, aims to take evidence-based interventions for people with dementia into their homes using telehealth technologies.
Dr Laver said around 85 per cent of people with dementia have mild to moderate symptoms with some 70 per cent living in the community, relying on help from family and friends to remain in their homes.
“This project looks at supporting those people to remain at home, and supporting their caregivers,” Dr Laver said.
She said that in the absence of effective drugs to treat dementia, carers have been labelled as ‘the primary therapeutic agent’.
“My project looks at implementing education and support for carers that has been shown both to improve the carer’s well-being and also delay functional decline in the person with dementia,” Dr Laver said.
Despite 40 such programs being shown to be effective in trials, barriers to access remain a problem, particularly in remote areas – some 30 per cent of people with dementia in Australia are estimated to live outside the major capital cities.
“Typically these programs are delivered over five to ten sessions and take place in the home, so they are very expensive and resource intensive to deliver,” Dr Laver said.
The research will employ a structured, seven-part assessment and support program called COPE, developed by Professor Laura Gitlin in the US.
The program assesses problems and priorities – “Each situation is unique,” Dr Laver says – and then educates carers about the range of behaviour associated with dementia symptoms, as well as offering communication and environmental strategies to assist with care.
The program also seeks to engage the person with dementia in activities, while providing counselling and relaxation for the caregiver.
“It’s a matter of problem-solving and working things through together,” Dr Laver said.
“We already know from trials that this approach works in homes; my research will test whether it’s similarly effective if you deliver it using telehealth technologies.”
Technology would also enable the use of highly specialised personnel who can be trained and located centrally, avoiding duplication across regional health services.
The Fellowship and the research project are funded by grants from the National Medical Health and Research Council and the Australian Research Council, and Dr Laver will also have opportunities to collaborate with other early career researchers through the new National Institute of Dementia Research in Canberra.
“The best thing you can really do is support the caregiver to provide the best care and to manage the symptoms, support them to cope, and teach them strategies to manage the stresses associated with caring,” Dr Laver said.