James Madison University

Students Design Caregiver Tech at Hackfest

By: Daniel Vieth
Posted: May 13, 2015

Each year, millions of caregivers around the nation face countless challenges as they tend to individuals with diseases like Alzheimer's or dementia. This was the focus of the Lindsay Institute for Innovations in Caregiving’s recent ‘Caring for the Caregiver’ Hackfest in Richmond on March 21-22. This event featured teams from seven Virginia schools developing technologies to help caregivers better manage the demands of their roles. JMU participated by sending a multidisciplinary team of six students from social work, nursing, and engineering.

PHOTO: JMU Team at Hackfest

“Caregivers are faced with a lot of stress and isolation,” explained engineering team member Collier Apgar. “It can be difficult for them to navigate the different health systems, make food, work, have time for themselves, and create bonds with new friends.” Social work team member Katherine Gaines further explained that caregivers often get burnt out trying to uphold all of their obligations, particularly given the unpredictable nature of their roles. “Being a caregiver for someone, usually a family member, is often full-time, on top of other jobs,” Gaines continued. “This stress can take a physical toll on caregivers.”

Looking for ways to alleviate some of these stressors for both caregivers and their patients, the Lindsay Institute’s Hackfest challenged participating teams to design tools intended to improve the lives of caregivers in a 25½ hour competition. “Sometimes, the development of some kind of assistive technology is the critical piece that makes the difference between what is manageable and what is not for caregivers,” explained CHBS Associate Dean Dr. Rhonda Zingraff. “Increasingly what we’re looking at is how technology can address the isolation caregivers feel.” Some of the technologies designed at the event included websites, gadgets, smartphone apps, and even wearables. “Technology could help make people more aware, organize the caregiver’s life, and help them be more informed and better able to make the best decisions,” added Apgar.

Each team was also paired with a local caregiver, who gave insight into the type of issues that a new technology could resolve. “We learned about the caregivers’ lives and the challenges they faced,” said nursing team member Talia Startsman. “Most of the caregivers, including ours, worked full-time jobs and cared for their parent or parents.”

During the Hackfest, JMU’s team created the concept for ‘The Duke Juke,’ a music player and camera designed to look like an old-fashioned radio with an accompanying smartphone application and website. “The idea was that this device would reduce the stress of the caregiver by enabling them to see their patient or loved one, and at the same time interact with them by playing soothing music if needed,” explained Apgar. The technology was designed to be sturdy, affordable, and have varying levels of controllability for the caregiver and for the patient depending on their needs.

PHOTO: JMU Team at Hackfest

The premise behind ‘The Duke Juke’ is based on music therapy. “The research makes clear that music is an incredibly powerful door for people, even for those with assorted dementias,” explained Zingraff. “When they are given an opportunity to enjoy the music that was important to them when they were younger, they become animated, more focused, their cognition improves, and they may start to move, which is physically good for them.”

The team was also inspired by their assigned caregiver’s mother, diagnosed with slow progressing dementia ten years ago, who often calls saying she is hurt when she is fine. “Our caregiver will drop everything at work and go to see her, only to discover she is physically fine,” said Gaines. “With ‘Duke Juke,’ the caregiver would not need to leave work, have the peace of mind seeing that his mother is okay, and could play some music for them listen to together.” 

“My favorite memory from the event was a Nurse Practitioner from UVA coming up to our team after our presentation and earnestly thanking us for our idea. They said we took the caregiver’s needs into account and came up with something that they could actually see themselves using,” Gaines continued. “It was affirming to see that the skills I am learning at JMU in both social work and gerontology are really taking root and that I am capable of using them in a very real way.”

The group hopes to eventually make ‘Duke Juke’ a reality, and JMU plans to participate in next year’s Hackfest event. “I just want to applaud the JMU Hack team; they were all committed and able to bring a really important voice to the work of the team,” said Zingraff. “It was really important that we had a mixture of students who represented the STEM knowledge base, as well as the health and human services knowledge base, because we really need to bring those together.” Student’s multidisciplinary participation in events like this demonstrates dedication to engaging with and finding solutions to real struggles faced by people in need.