U. duo gets funding to study unmet health care needs of elderly and their caregivers

Published: Sunday, Feb. 2 2014 6:35 p.m. MST

Jordan Allred, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — Debra Scammon helps care for her 87-year-old aunt, who lives in a small, rural community of California.

Christie North has helped to care for her husband's 88-year-old Japanese-American parents, who have lived with them for the past 20 years.

While the two have very different circumstances, they've discovered very similar challenges that deal with caring for the elderly — a lack of communication between multiple providers that older people often have to deal with, said Scammon, the director of the University of Utah's Master of Healthcare Administration program.

And they're finding the issue is not all too uncommon.

"Many of us are at this point in our lives," Scammon said. "What we used to do for our kids, we're now doing for our parents."

The two behaviorists have secured funding from the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to funding research designed to give patients, caregivers and clinicians the information needed to make better health care decisions. The Taking Care of Our Parents project is one of 30 currently funded by the group.

Speaking with elderly patients and their caregivers, North said, is the first step in the process of getting to more efficient care. She said a panel of local and worldwide experts in family medicine and geriatrics will then participate and help find ways to close the gaps uncovered by the next nine months of research.

North said she hopes to apply for additional funding to support further research and dispersal of information.

A website and other methods of communication are forthcoming, she said.

"This shouldn't be so difficult. It should not be so hard to help people have appropriate handoffs of responsibility, consistent care, good communication between caregivers, and be assured that it is going to go well," North said.

"We hope to change the care trajectory so that every person, as they get older and require more care, can be assured that the process will go smoothly and that they will be kept informed," she said.

While her recently deceased mother's younger sister is "quite cognitively capable," Scammon said, "she is single, lives by herself and depends on her friends and family to help out."

Providing assistance long-distance and incorporating a handful of visits each year helps her aunt, but Scammon said "it's one thing after another."

"It's a huge burden for an older person to have to deal with that," she said, adding that the elderly often have various doctors and specialists they see, as well as a list of corresponding medications.

"It's a burden for both of us, but it's more of a burden for her," Scammon said.

She and North, a recent graduate of the U.'s program, aim to ease that burden for patients and their caregivers by uncovering some of the gaps that exist and help find ways to fill them.

"When I get to be a senior, I want to know that somehow it is going to work better than it has in the past," North said.

Email: wleonard@deseretnews.com, Twitter: wendyleonards

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