Skype helping dementia patients, families stay in touch

February 12, 2010 6:00 AM EST

A company specializing in home care for the elderly plans on Sunday to launch a program to use Skype videoconferencing to connect dementia patients with their families.

People with dementia often have difficulty with phone conversations. But care managers and home health aides employed by the SeniorBridge company will get the patients set up on Skype, and use the service to connect with families, as well as allowing patients to videoconference with doctors and other healthcare providers.

SeniorBridge provides care management services nationally, for people who have complex conditions requiring care coordination at home.

Ten million adult children now care for their parents, and many do it long-distance. That's where the new videoconferencing service comes in, said SeniorBridge CEO Dr. Eric Rackow. "This benefits the adult child because they see their parents, and it benefits parents who want to see their children and relate to them," he said.

The first person to use the service will be in Florida, an 85-year-old who will use Skype to videoconference with an adult son living in Holland, Rackow said. The 85-year-old has difficulty using the phone, but will hopefully be able to successfully interact with her son using Skype video.

SeniorBridge has 30 offices in 10 states, primarily along the East Coast, in the New York metropolitan area and east and west coast of Florida, along with a national network of 500 care managers, professional nurses and social workers.

Rackow says his company drives down healthcare costs by allowing patients to remain in the home longer. On Medicare, 10% of patients account for two thirds of costs, and keeping patients out of hospitals and nursing homes reduces that spending. And any cost-cutting benefits help; as the American population ages, healthcare costs are soaring.

The 85-and-older age group is the fastest growing in the U.S., and half have dementia.

The service uses the same, standard Skype available to consumers. SeniorBridge equips the home health aides with netbooks with built-in Webcams and 3G wireless networking cards from AT&T. The netbooks have Skype pre-installed and pre-configured, and the home health aides are trained by SeniorBridge's IT department in using the technology, said company CIO Howard Levine.

"It was very easy to set up," Levine said. SeniorBridge shipped out the netbooks preconfigured with a Skype account and wireless card, then scheduled conference calls to show the care workers how to use the tools. The range of skills in the care workers was broad, some had never even used laptops, others were already comfortable with Skype.

SeniorBridge chose Samsung NC20 netbooks for the program, because their 12" screen is larger than other netbooks, and it's a sturdy system with full-sized keyboard, built-in Webcam, and Windows XP, Levine said. The company currently has 10 netbooks deployed, and plans to send them to all 30 branches after the first call is completed Sunday.

The cost to SeniorBridge is about $50 per month for the wireless service, plus $500 for the netbook. SeniorBridge provides the Skype service at no additional cost, it's part of the home health care package.