Culture, Medicine & Psychiatry, and the medical anthropological community at large, is committed to understanding the changing landscape of aging as both developed and developing countries experience demographic shifts, social change, and economic transformations that have impacted the way older adults receive care and treatment. Our December 1999 special issue addressed the anthropological complexity of family care dynamics, dementia, and global aging, and our journal continues to publish articles on this pressing theme in the field.
In recent news, there has been a flurry of articles that address the variety of new programs across the United States that strive to address this timely and critical issue in the field of medicine and care delivery. Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, for example, has initiated a home hospitalization program for elderly patients. The program recognizes the desire of older adult patients to heal in their home environment, and visiting clinicians employed by the program are able to perform basic tests as well as deliver IV medications at the patient’s home in what is called a “mobile acute care” model.
This shift does, of course, benefit the hospital: it opens valuable bed space for other patients and allows staff to focus on the management of more serious cases. But it also has advantages for the patient, including reduced cost, the comfort of healing in the home, reduction in hospital-borne infections and symptoms of delirium in the unfamiliar hospital environment (common amongst older patients), and the ability for family members to be available at all times of the day to supplement care rather than being strictly permitted during visitation hours. A similar program for treating acute conditions in the elderly at home was instated in New Mexico, with promising results and improved patient outcomes.
Another piece in The Atlantic, however, outlines the difficulties of receiving extended at-home medical care for older adults with chronic illnesses like Parkinson’s. As children of the elderly generation continue to work longer, and in married families both spouses are employed, there is no one at home to deliver lasting care to older family members who have chronic rather than acute conditions. Visiting home health aides, who are equipped to assist with basic tasks such as helping older adults shower and get in and out of bed, are typically underpaid and do not service outlying suburban or rural areas in the United States where many older individuals now live. Although the majority of elderly individuals prefer to live at home and not enter an assisted care facility, without consistent home care delivery available, it becomes extraordinarily difficult to do so.
Other organizations are generating creative solutions to delivering at-home care assistance for the elderly, particularly those without debilitating health conditions but who nevertheless require other forms of assistance. As NPR reports, many older adults struggle with the physical tasks required to cook healthy meals, such as lifting heavy pots and preparing fresh ingredients. Some rely on microwaveable dinners, and do not get the nutrients they need to support their health. The company “Chefs for Seniors” has met this need in the Madison, Wisconsin area by sending professional chefs to older adults’ homes, where they cook a week’s worth of healthy meals for the resident. To ensure the plan is affordable for seniors, the company charges $15 for groceries and $30 per hour for the chef to prepare the meals: on average, this costs the customer $45 to $75 per week. The meals can also be personalized to the customer’s dietary preferences and needs.
While the United States faces numerous struggles to provide inclusive and accessible elderly care to an expanding older adult population, these smaller changes to the dynamics of caregiving—however flawed, as in the case of limited home health aides—demonstrates a broader recognition of this vital social and medical concern.
For another piece on elderly caregiving, be sure to check out this “From the Archive” blog post on dementia and family caregiving in urban India: https://culturemedicinepsychiatry.com/2014/11/19/from-the-archive-caregiving-and-dementia-in-urban-india/