Can Virtual "House Calls" Help Dementia Patients?

With the alarming rise in new dementia cases worldwide, there is a critical shortage in long-term care beds and trained professionals to provide care.   Since many of these dementia patients and their families live in remote rural areas,  patients and their caregivers often spend hours traveling to urban centres to access the help they need.   

Can virtual "house calls" be the answer?   A new research project funded by the Alzheimer Society of Canada's Research Program is looking at the effectiveness of video conferencing in linking rural dementia patients and their families with health-care professionals living in distant cities.     According to Dr. Roger Butler, a family medicine professor at Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland, the "tele-gerontology" project he and his team are setting up will allow people with dementia stay in their homes longer and reduce the stress of their caregivers.

With Alzheimer's Society funding, Dr. Butler and his team will provide tablets or home computers to twenty Alzheimer's patients.   Through weekly video confereencing sessions with a nurse or doctor in St. John's, caregivers can share information about health problems that arise and also learn how to care for their family members.  

“It’s one of the major health crises our society will have to face over the next 30 years,” said Doctor Butler in an interview with local media.  “When government spends hundreds of millions on nursing homes as a solution without having all forms of assisted living and at-home programs in place, that’s a model doomed to failure."

Through video conferencing, caregivers can learn about new developments in dementia care and also have a social outlet to help them deal with the stress of providing long-term care.  Live video contct can also be important for dementia patients by helping them remain mentally active.   According to British researchers, cognitive rehabilitation with dementia patients has been  effective in helping with memory lapse though regular weekly sessions with a trained rehabilitation specialist is needed.   While this has been a problem for patients living in rural areas, video conferencing can help them avoid lengthy commuting. 

According to Rachel Burton of the University of Saskatchewan's Rural and Remote Memory Clinic,  the cognitive rehabilitiation she currently provides to patients at the Saskatoon clinic could soon be available for dementia patients in their own homes.  “I’m still in Saskatoon, and people who are accessing the treatment would remain in their home communities,” she said. “I’m in a room and there’s a small TV screen, and they’re in another room with a screen, and we just talk.”   Family caregivers can also take part in the rehabilitation and even provide some of the therapy themselves. 

While it is still to soon to evaluate the effectiveness of video conferencing, Burton is hoping to match the success reported by British therapists using in-person cognitive rehabilitation.

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