My mom and dad had been married for 50 years when she was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer in 2009. She was a youthful, beautiful and fit 69 year-old, so the diagnosis was a heartbreaking shock to everyone in my small, close-knit family. Over the course of 24 hours my dad went from being a carefree retiree to full-time caregiver – his days and nights consumed with managing doctor visits, medicines and anything else my mom needed for comfort and support. He was well into his 70s, a former military colonel and representative of a generation of men who weren’t accustomed to talking about their feelings. I know he didn’t seek much help from his friends or neighbors – and I also know, based on his very sporadic use of the Internet up until that point in his life, that he didn’t look for emotional support or practical information online.
Three years later, there is some significant research that suggests my dad would be in the minority of caregivers if he were in the same situation today. According to a July 2012 Pew Internet & American Life Project study, 30 percent of U.S. adults play a caregiver role to a family member or friend. Nearly eight in 10 have access to the Internet, which they use to obtain practical information and personal support as well. Nearly nine out of 10 (88 percent) go online for information about topics ranging from treatments to hospital ratings to end-of-life decisions; 44 percent have read someone else’s personal health story online; and the 28 percent who use sites like Facebook have followed their friends’ personal health experiences or health updates.
So what does this mean for social marketers?
First, we should recognize the potential role of caregivers in campaigns that focus on health-related topics. According to the National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP, more than 65 million people provide care for a chronically ill, disabled or aged family member or friend during any given year. As an audience and as messengers, caregivers should be carefully considered in our efforts to help people adopt behaviors that lead to longer, healthier lives. While partnerships, grassroots communications and traditional media should certainly be part of our communications mix, this data demonstrates that social media should also be a strong focal point. Based on this research, a winning approach would be a combination of forums – such as Facebook – that enable caregivers to get emotional support from each other, and on Web resources that supply the practical information that caregivers need as well.
Fortunately, there are a number of excellent venues that are already available to caregivers. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services has a web site that helps caregivers manage everything from paying for care to dealing with chronic health conditions to preparing for transitions such as a discharge from the hospital or a move to a nursing home.
In addition to this resource, social marketers can look to the AARP as a potential partner thanks to the wide array of resources at its caregiver site, which helps caregivers find local resources by zip code, along with a wealth of other practical information. This USA Today story also references eCareDiary.com, a resource-rich site that offers a blend of practical information and content focused on helping caregivers cope with stress and emotional issues. That site also offers a unique interactive resource that helps caregivers manage daily tasks such as scheduling medical appointments and organizing legal documents, along with a way to stay in touch with their own private networks online.
These are just a few of the allies we should consider in efforts to engage caregivers, who will become even more important with the rapid growth of America’s population of older persons, which is expected to reach 72.1 million by 2030, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration on Aging. Connecting with them will give us a dual benefit – we’ll be reaching people in need of helpful information, and tapping them as champions for life-improving behavior changes as well.