Skip to Main Content

Helping Caregivers Nationwide with Public Health Research

October 23, 2020
by Matt Kristoffersen

Adult caregiving is not easy. Between frequent doctor visits and sometimes tense conversations with older loved ones about what’s best for their care, millions of adults who help aging Americans say they feel stressed, anxious or financially insecure.

But when it comes to supporting these caregivers, Johns Hopkins Professor Jennifer Wolff told more than 50 Yale School of Public Health attendees in a Wednesday online gathering that there is more work to be done.

Wolff’s one-hour talk was the ninth in the Yale School of Public Health’s yearly Dean’s Lecture series. Co-sponsored by the Yale Program on Aging, the virtual lecture is also part of a wider push for more aging research. It’s a growing area of study — especially as the Baby Boomer generation gets older, Wolff explained.

“We’d just like more and more people to take more interest in this vital topic,” Yale School of Public Health Dean Sten Vermund said.

Wolff told attendees that the lessons learned from public health studies on caregiving are not always shared with the caregivers themselves. That is partly because researchers have not agreed on the definitions of basic terms — which can create what Wolff calls a “word salad” that can be hard to parse through.

“There’s a tremendous disconnect between science and advocacy and policy that’s inhibited evidence-informed policy and practice,” she said.

In the end, she explained, “very few caregivers now benefit from evidence-based support.”

But Wolff is trying to change that.

Through her research, Wolff devised a checklist for patients and caregivers to use ahead of a doctor’s appointment. With the checklist, Wolff said, older Americans can more easily identify their concerns, problems and difficulties. And for those with cognitive impairment, the form can also make sure that important issues do not get missed or forgotten.

Just about every patient-caregiver couple in Wolff’s study reported that her checklist helped. More research is underway.

“I think overall it’s a really exciting time to be doing work in this area,” she said.

Wolff also shared recent studies that described the challenges and frustrations of caregiving. According to one article she cited, even though nine in 10 family caregivers feel that their loved one’s health care workers usually listen to what they have to say, nearly half of those sampled said they were never asked if they needed assistance.

Near the end of her presentation, Wolff gave some insight into how she thinks aging research might change under a new presidential administration — and how it has already changed in light of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I really feel like family caregiving is like moms and apple pie,” she said to muted chuckles. “It’s really not a political issue, because I think all of us recognize the importance of families and supporting families.”

Wolff, Ph.D., directs the Roger C. Lipitz Center for Integrated Health Care at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Submitted by Ivette Aquilino on October 23, 2020