Smart glasses help family caregivers connect to professional help for loved ones aging at home

Caring for an older relative despite having no formal caregiving training can be stressful, but a new pilot project in the Grand Rapids area is using smart glasses to help.
This article is part of State of Health, a series about how Michigan communities are rising to address health challenges. It is made possible with funding from the Michigan Health Endowment Fund.

Caring for an older relative despite having no formal caregiving training can be stressful, but a new pilot project in the Grand Rapids area is using smart glasses to connect family caregivers to professional help.

As part of a dementia-capable care collaboration, the Michigan faith-based health and human services nonprofit Samaritas is partnering with Grand Rapids-based Care Resources Program of All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly (PACE) to distribute smart glasses to three to five family caregivers who look after loved ones with dementia. The technology will allow family caregivers to instantaneously connect with medical assistance and advice. Care Resources is training social workers, physical therapists, and occupational therapists as its virtual smart-glasses responders.

"We will be able to guide family caregivers, in real time, on how to address the behaviors of their loved ones who have dementia," says Tom Muszynski, COO of Care Resources. "When they're having issues, we will be able to speak to them while we're watching exactly what they're seeing and make interventions that will assist them."
Dayna Roe, Samaritas director of memory care, demonstrates smart glasses with a colleague.
The Glass Enterprise Edition 2 smart glasses are being rolled out in partnership with Netherlands-based 1Minuut as part of Samaritas’ C.A.R.E.S. Program for older adults with dementia. Used along with 1Minuut's Genzõ app, the care team can see what the caregiver sees, hear what they hear, and provide instant support and advice on everything from behavioral challenges to home safety. 

"In the Netherlands, we have seen and proven how innovative technical solutions, like the pairing of Genzõ with Glass, has transformed the quality of elder care in complex medical situations," says Martijn de Groot, co-owner of 1Minuut.

The Michigan Health Endowment Fund provided a grant of nearly $500,000 to support training, program operation, and purchase of the technology. The pilot will offer professional and family caregivers access to the smart glasses at no cost.

"The smart glasses are going to be a great way for the trained, home-based caregiver to see what's happening right at the moment with the person with dementia and their home base, their family caregiver," says Pam DeBono, Samaritas senior grants manager. "They will also be able to look at the whole environment."

Because access to reliable internet connectivity can be an issue, family caregivers using the smart glasses will also receive a pre-connected hotspot as part of the package.

"Family caregivers may be an elderly spouse taking care of a spouse with dementia, or an older daughter or son taking care of their parent," DeBono says. "We don't want to add the technology barrier of them having to connect the smart glasses to their home WiFi system."

Promoting aging in place

The program's goal is to extend the time older adults with dementia can live at home with loved ones. 88% of older adults would rather age in place at home rather than move into assisted living or long-term care facilities. However, as they continue to age or develop dementia, many rely on family members to help with daily activities like bathing, dressing, eating, and getting up and out of bed or to the bathroom. 

"If people can be in their homes longer, they're surrounded by their things that they enjoy," says Dayna Roe, Samaritas director of memory care. "The family member's support might be higher. And they could be healthier longer because they don't have to navigate new spaces unknowingly, especially as cognition changes."
Dayna Roe.
A Medicare/Medicaid program, PACE provides comprehensive medical and social services, including adult day care, therapies, and in-home services, at low or no cost to older adults who live at home.

"PACE covers such a large geographic area, and the smart glasses will be so useful in helping families at home with their caregiving. They are awesome. And they are going to become our model of dementia-capable care," DeBono says. "The smart glasses will be so useful in helping families at home with their caregiving. It's not just a hands-free device. It's a way to work in a holistic way, seeing and not having to send the PACE caregiver into every single home. We certainly will use the technology in crisis situations. But, even more, it can be a real preventative approach."

Muszynski says aging in place is a goal for many Care Resources participants.

"If we can keep the person living with dementia in their home surroundings, it's something that they're most familiar with," he says. "Family members also want to take care of their loved ones. Any way that we can support them is truly important."

Muszynski says the pilot is also a small way to address the staffing shortage of professional caregivers.

"We need to do whatever we can with technology to support people because there aren’t enough caregivers at this point," he says.

Technology: an elder’s new best friend

Samaritas has also begun using the smart glasses in its Grand Rapids long-term care facility. Certified nursing assistants (CNAs), who perform the bulk of personal care, have a lot on their plates. Now, when a patient has a potential medical concern, they can give the on-call nurse a virtual look in on the patient.

"The nurses are able to see what's going on without being here," says CNA Dee Meux. "I think that’s a step in the right direction and will further promote the care that people need because the [nursing staff] are able to assist us promptly."
Dee Meux demonstrates smart glasses.
Care Resources hopes to eventually expand the use of smart glasses to include its own home care employees so they can have instantaneous contact with the primary care team.

"For example, when one of our caregivers is doing a dressing change for a wound while they're in the home, our primary care staff can be looking at the wound through the glasses at the same time," Muszynski says. "I think we need to access more technology to assist people in their homes. We are already doing that with some other technology besides the smart glasses."

Care Resources has been using Care.Coach, a telemedicine app that uses a digital avatar connected to the care team, to coach clients through self-management of chronic conditions, provide psychosocial support, and generate alerts. Similarly, the WalkWise platform allows for remote monitoring of clients using walkers, determining if they’ve taken enough steps, gotten out of bed in the morning, or fallen. The Care Resources team also remotely monitors blood pressure, weight, and vital signs, and pairs clients with robotic pets.

"I have talked about technology for a long time and got a lot of resistance in the past from people saying, ‘Big brother’s watching me.’ The pandemic has forced us to use more technology. And it has turned out that people really like it," Muszynski says. "These are great tools to maintain people at home. I told my kids, ‘I'd rather you be watching me at home than have three, four, or five different people coming in all day long at a nursing home, invading my privacy. Technology is something that we need to use. It’s our friend. And it does enable people to stay in their homes longer."
 
Estelle Slootmaker is a working writer focusing on journalism, book editing, communications, poetry, and children's books. You can contact her at Estelle.Slootmaker@gmail.com or www.constellations.biz.

Photos by Kristina Bird.