Op-Ed: Raising the Bar for Elderly Care at Home

As the country's elderly population increases, health care providers face new challenges.

Elderly woman holding hand.

Many believe that at-home care is the optimal choice for the elderly.

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Thanks to decades of advancements in medicine, humans have a longer life expectancy than ever before. Consider that the oldest living person today – Misawo Okawa at 116 years old – was not expected to see her 45th birthday when she was born in 1898. While super-centenarians like Okawa are rare, people in the United States can expect to live an average of 78.7 years, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development – good news to be sure, but it also presents new challenges in how we provide care to the elderly.

[SPECIAL REPORT: Hospital of Tomorrow]

Nursing homes and assisted living centers still serve an important role; however, they meet the needs of just a small subset of the world’s aging population. Increasingly, the elderly are opting to be cared for at home, preferring their own surroundings instead of outside environments. This is sparking a renewed debate on the merits and challenges of home care versus third-party care. Many believe home care is the optimal choice, as it can be tailored to individual circumstances such as family support, social connections, physical space and access to programs and services.

Each aspect of an individual’s living situation and care requirements should determine the delivery model based on a strong understanding of the strengths, barriers and needs of the unique individual. A more holistic approach to elderly care facilitates coordinated, proactive and preventive measures in which those being cared for are regularly monitored for adherence to prescribed medications, physical therapy or dietary restrictions. With the right home care protocols, people are more likely to take an active role managing their own treatment plans for better health, rather than just react to situations that may arise. This can help keep them healthy at home while reducing costly hospital trips.

[READ: Long-Term Care Costs Are Cheapest at Home]

With home care, multiple agencies must collaborate to ensure that they have a complete profile of each individual. For the first time, technology is enabling team-based care coordination for aging populations in their homes. As organizations look for better ways to meet public needs, big data and advanced analytics have emerged as a way for care providers to drive better outcomes for their elderly patients. In tandem with improved information sharing among care providers and hospital-quality in-home monitoring systems, the elderly and their families can feel more secure in their home care decisions.

For example, the Region of Southern Denmark recently shifted to a standardized platform for monitoring patients so that physicians, pharmacists and specialists can provide holistic care based on unique individual needs. This connected platform enables more effective data analysis across the care continuum and better patient status tracking as the individual transitions from the hospital to the home. Aided by a more thorough understanding of the care the patient has received, providers can better ensure that individuals are receiving the most effective treatment and taking appropriate measures to ensure wellness at home.

When opting for home care, one common concern is that in the event of an emergency, a loved one will be unable to call for help. Part of developing a home care plan is to mitigate these concerns without hindering the sense of independence. This delicate balance is achievable through the use of non-invasive sensors to collect data and identify abnormalities in patient behavior. If an anomaly is detected – for example, no movement in the resident’s house or deviations from the resident’s usual schedule – the system can alert social services, nurses or other emergency contacts. The sensors serve a preventive function as they can detect abnormalities early on, and are also a means of providing the comfort and independence many elderly people desire without sacrificing safety.

These technologies are also in use in other segments of our society, including pediatric care. Boston Children’s Hospital, for example, just launched a new cloud-based solution called Open Pediatrics, which allows thousands of physicians across 80 countries and six continents to connect, collaborate and share knowledge about treatment options for critically ill children the world over. Similar social learning platforms can be employed for elderly populations, including those geared toward home environments.

With the world’s demographics continuing to change, how we provide care for aging populations has become an important issue. As elderly patients increasingly opt for home care, something that was viewed as a dangerous option only a few years ago, technological advances will continue to play a key role driving better treatment options and care coordination across providers. As population demographics continue to shift, so too should the methods of elderly care, helping people live with dignity in their own homes.

Ronan Rooney is the Director of Product Strategy, Social Program Management, at IBM.

nursing homes
health care
health care reform