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Caregiver mistakes risky for seniors

NORTHWESTERN (US) — Basic tasks, such as sorting medications into pillboxes, are challenging for many caregivers paid to assist seniors living at home.

The problem, according to a new Northwestern Medicine study, is that more than one-third of caregivers had difficulty reading and understanding health-related information and directions.

In a first-of-its-kind study—reported in the Journal of General Internal Medicine—nearly 100 paid, non-family caregivers were recruited in the Chicago area and their health literacy levels and the health-related responsibilities were assessed.

“We found that nearly 86 percent of the caregivers perform health-related tasks,” says study leader Lee Lindquist, assistant professor of geriatrics. “Most of the caregivers are women, about 50 years old. Many are foreign born or have a limited education. The jobs typically pay just under $9.00 per hour, but nearly one-third of the caregivers earn less than minimum wage.”

Lindquist found that despite pay, country of birth or education level, 60 percent of all the caregivers made errors when doling medication into a pillbox. This is an alarming statistic, because patients who don’t take certain medications as prescribed could end up in the hospital, Lindquist notes.

“Many of these caregivers are good people who don’t want to disappoint and don’t want to lose their jobs,” Lindquist says. “So they take on health-related responsibilities, such as giving out medications and accompanying clients to the doctor for appointments.

“Most physicians and family members do not realize that while the caregiver is nodding and saying ‘yes’, she might not really understand what is being said.”

Right now there isn’t a standard test family members or employment agencies can use to gauge a caregiver’s ability to understand and follow health-related information, Lindquist says.

“Currently we are developing tests consumers can use to evaluate caregiver skills as well as studying the screening processes caregiver agencies use,” Lindquist says.

“But, if you really want to know if the caregiver is doing a good job and is taking care of the health needs of your senior, start by going into the home, observing them doing the tasks, and asking more questions.”

The Barney Family Foundation funded the study.

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