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UNT Insider | July 2008 Issue | Videophone research

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Videophone research could lead to better communication among elderly, caregivers

From a UNT News Service press release

Elaine Wittenberg-Lyles

Elaine Wittenberg-Lyles

Although many people use the word "caregivers" to describe someone who lives with a family member who is in need of day-to-day care, nearly 7 million Americans live an hour or more away from an elderly parent or other older relative who needs assistance, according to the American Society on Aging. The society says the average travel time for these caregivers to reach their relatives is four hours.

A UNT faculty member is part of a national research team that will examine the use of videophone technology in nursing homes to help nursing home residents better communicate with their distant caregivers. The research is being funded by a $50,000 grant from the Keck Futures Initiative of the National Academies, which provides research grants to support interdisciplinary projects on human health and aging.

Elaine Wittenberg-Lyles, an assistant professor in UNT's Department of Communication Studies, says her research team is led by Lazelle E. Benefield, a Fort Worth resident who is a professor and the Endowed Parry Chair in Gerontological Nursing at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center.

Wittenberg-Lyles is the only communication studies faculty member on the team, which also consists of three faculty members from Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, Ore., and one faculty member each from the University of Washington at Seattle and Saint Louis University.

She points out that the age of the residents may result in them being more open to using videophone technology than other technology, such as the Internet, to communicate with family members.

"It's also an inexpensive solution because most nursing homes do not have Internet in the residents' rooms, but do have phone lines," Wittenberg-Lyles says.

Seeing images of their long-distance caregivers via videophones, she says, may result in nursing home residents having better and more frequent communication with the caregivers, and vice versa, than if they used a phone without video technology. She adds that the residents without this regular contact may feel a sense of isolation, which may lead to depression.

"Videophones are effective in creating 'social presence,' which is just like being in the same room as the person you are communicating with," she says. "In this regard, videophones are superior to standard phone lines by being able to facilitate social support presence."

Wittenberg-Lyles also is part of a research team that has submitted a proposal to the National Institute on Aging for a separate study on the use of videophones in nursing homes. Forty patients living in two nursing homes, and 40 of the patients' caregivers, will receive videophones during the study. The researchers will evaluate the use of the phones and whether the use resulted in better communication.

Previously, Wittenberg-Lyles examined the use of videophones among caregivers of hospice patients. The study, supported by the National Cancer Institute, examined caregivers' use of videophones to collaborate with hospice teams.

"A hospice provides holistic care and support for patients and their family members, and each is federally regulated to provide 13 months of bereavement care after a patient dies," Wittenberg-Lyles says.

Hospice teams, she says, consist of physicians, nurses, social workers and chaplains. Videophones allow caregivers to be involved in team meetings when they cannot leave their loved ones.

"The usual scenario is that the hospice patient is at home with a caregiver who's had no experience in caring for a dying person," she says. "Videophones solve the barriers of time. The caregiver can even physically show the team if the patient hurts in a certain part of the body, or has lost mobility."

In addition to teaching at UNT, Wittenberg-Lyles is an adjunct faculty member at the University of Texas Health Sciences Center in San Antonio, where she teaches medical school students how to deliver bad news to patients and family members.

She says she became interested in health care communication after she took a summer class on health organizational systems. She realized very little research existed on palliative care, which focuses on preventing and relieving suffering and improving the quality of life for people facing chronic illness.

"I also didn't understand why people were reluctant to use hospice services. Then my father-in-law was diagnosed with brain cancer, and I began to understand the communication that must happen between the hospice team and the caregiver," she says. "In the past, medical schools taught students how to communicate only with patients, and not their family members, but they're slowly getting away from this, which is important in an aging population."

UNT News Service press release
Nancy Kolsti can be reached at nkolsti@unt.edu.

Read other stories in this issue:

July 2008

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