Elderly women focus of study

A $600,000 grant will fund MU research of emergency help for those living alone.
Tuesday, September 23, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:59 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

The National Institute on Aging, part of the National Institutes of Health, has awarded $600,000 for an MU study of women 85 and older who live alone.

The study, “Old Homebound Women’s Intention of Reaching Help Quickly,” is led by Eileen Porter, an associate professor in MU’s Sinclair School of Nursing. It will examine the experiences of women who use a personal emergency response system — bracelets or necklaces with beepers attached to them — and the experiences of women who do not use them.

Porter will then compare the characteristics of women who do use such systems to those who do not by looking at differences such as social and family situations.

Porter said about 60 percent of elderly women who are not in some type of care center live alone.

“About half will have real difficulties getting out of the house by themselves, and they are at risk for needing help fast,” she said.

Erik Lindbloom, a geriatrician and a researcher in the study, said the work is important because there are increasing efforts to help older adults stay independent in their own homes for as long as possible.

The system, commonly known as PERS, typically works like this: The telephone line in the user’s house is connected to a button that he or she wears. When the button is pushed, the system immediately contacts a hospital. In turn, the hospital calls the friends or family of the person so they can check on her. If the hospital can’t contact someone the woman knows, it sends a hospital employee.

Porter said that a main reason some women do not use a PERS is because they think the system can mean an invasion of privacy. For example, the system can mean surprise visits if the button is accidentally pushed.

“One woman reported that her neighbor was standing by her bed in the middle of the night because she had rolled over on the button,” Porter said. “Such situations can be frightening to older women.”

Myra Aud, an assistant professor in the nursing school and a researcher in the study, said another reason some elderly women chose to not use the PERS is because they feel like they are bothering the person contacted through the system.

Porter and associates want to understand the process going on in the women’s minds — to know what it is like to be in a situation where help is needed quickly.

“As health-care providers, our job is to create a plan of care,” Porter said. “It’s important that we work with the people we’re trying to help. If we can better understand the intentions of these older women, that is, what they’re trying to do with their lives in this experience, we can do a better job of making a plan of care that’s helpful for them.”

Aud also says it is important to find out what these women would like to use as a safety system.

“Once we know what kind they prefer, then we will be able to make them safer, and that is what I fully support,” she said.

Porter says she conducts research about older people because she has been inspired by them.

“I had wonderful grandparents and a great small community in my church. They encouraged me,” she said.

The 18-month study will consist of three interviews with the women in their homes, with phone interviews in between.

“We are there to learn from them,” Porter said. “We don’t have the answers.”

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