New Medical Technology Helps Caregivers and Their Loved Ones Live Fuller Lives

Virginia Cianfarani believes in angels. In fact, the 89-year-old Lincoln Park resident sees them every day, she confides.

One “angel” is her daughter, Esther Millhorn. The others are the telehealth nurses from Henry Ford At Home's e-Home Care who make it possible for Virginia to remain in the modest bungalow she’s called home for 62 years and raised eight children.

A spunky, petite woman with strawberry blond hair, a ready smile and a quick wit, Virginia has a long list of health issues, including heart troubles, high blood pressure, diabetes and thyroid problems. Despite her health challenges, she loves to dance and enjoys making others laugh, joking that she still flirts with her doctors and plans to have her memorial before she dies so she can enjoy the party. She has lived alone since her husband died of congestive heart failure nine years ago. In good weather, she can usually be found on her front porch, chatting with neighbors or passersby. In bad weather, she’s indoors watching Dr. Phil and hanging out with her 13-year-old shih tzu, Princess.

Virginia’s roots in the community run deep, so it’s not surprising that she resisted her move to a nursing home when her health began to fail in 2010. “She made it very clear that she did not want to stay there,” explains her daughter, Esther. “She curled up in a ball and quickly started to deteriorate. Finally, the doctor said ‘take her out.' ”

No place like home

Like many families, the Cianfaranis looked at several ways to help Virginia maintain her active, independent lifestyle. Ask a family member to live with her? Virginia nixed the idea. Hire a visiting caregiver? Virginia didn’t like strangers in the house. Finally, after three heart attacks and a repeat visit to the hospital for congestive heart failure, the family discovered Henry Ford At Home care, one of many caregiver-assistance programs available to patients and their families.

The service turned out to be a good choice for Virginia. For the past five years, nurses have monitored her around-the-clock via phone, computer and several high-tech electronic devices, including a pill dispenser, blood pressure machine, blood-oxygen monitor, a scale, emergency alert and a fall sensor. She wears an emergency call button around her neck and checks in at various times during the day.

Esther works full-time, so caregiving 24/7 was difficult for her. She says the current arrangement suits her and her mother perfectly. “It was suggested as a trial program for congestive heart failure but it turned out to be perfect for everything,” she says.

The program is the best of both worlds, she adds. “It’s almost like my being there. If anything goes wrong, they call me or the doctor immediately. It has given our family relief knowing she’s safe. I still have to remind her not to try and go downstairs and do laundry or overdo it, but now I can go to work, get on with my day and know that that she’s being well cared for.”

Caring for caregivers

Virginia and Esther represent a growing trend toward family caregiving. In Michigan alone, about two million “angels” provide unpaid care to family members and close friends. One bit of good news came in 2016, says Shawn Bennis, RN, Henry Ford Health System’s family caregiver coordinator. That’s when Michigan adopted the CARE Act to support and equip family caregivers with the basic information and training they need when their loved ones go into the hospital and as they transition home. In support of the Act, Henry Ford Health System recently launched the family caregiver initiative, designed to offer additional resources to assist with transitions from hospital to home care, including support groups, websites and one-on-one experts.

“Many caregivers end up in this role by default. They are the daughter or son who live closest to Mom or Dad. Maybe they are the only relative in the area. Or the one trusted friend who is available to run errands, or the neighbor who has been like family for 30 years,” Bennis says. “The most common challenge caregivers face is not knowing where to begin.”

Caregivers who contact Bennis are looking for direction, she says. “Sometimes they just need a simple answer like a website, support group or a phone number for a specific resource. Others need help navigating the health care system or don’t have access to a computer. I often refer caregivers to various resources in the community as well as technology aids in the home. It really depends on the patient and caregiver’s unique situation. And sometimes caregivers need a listening ear. I provide that as well.”

In good hands

Back in Lincoln Park, the phone rings while Virginia is entertaining guests. Her blood pressure is a little low, says a nurse, not surprising when she’s off her usual routine. “Call us again when your visitors have left and we can double check it,” she tells Virginia. “Okay, honey,” Virginia replies. “I’ll talk to you a little later. Thanks for checking on me.” Esther smiles. “The program has really been a godsend,” she says. “Despite being independent, Mom not only considers the nurses her friends, she really listens to them. They definitely keep her going.”

Find resources at henryford.com.

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