Caretakers to Help Older Adults Be More Physically Active in New Study


University of Illinois at Chicago researchers who focus on helping the aging population maintain health and independence as long as possible are piloting a program to train home care aides to engage older adults in regular physical activity.

“Independence is important for all of us and especially for frail seniors. It is critical so they can avoid a nursing home,” said Naoko Muramatsu, associate professor of community health sciences in the School of Public Health and lead investigator of the study based at the Institute for Health Research and Policy.

Encouraging older adults to incorporate physical activity into their day can help them maintain their health, Muramatsu said. She and a multidisciplinary team of researchers are designing a pilot study to help home care aides practice physical activity routines tailored to the abilities of persons in their care. Typically, home care aides assist with household chores and personal care tasks.

For some older adults, the exercise will help them continue to carry groceries and do laundry. For others, it will mean they can maintain the ability to pour themselves a cup of coffee or hold their grandchild. The exercises also will help reduce the risk of tripping and falling.

In the pilot study, researchers will gather information about whether the program works in a home-care setting within a rapidly changing health care environment. Muramatsu’s study will focus on low-income Chicago residents, age 60 and older, who have physical limitations that would qualify them to move to a nursing home. The research team will work with community partners to train home care aides to participate in the program.

The long-term goal of the research is to design a proven format that community-based organizations can implement.

Frail older adults are not the focus of many research studies so little is known about how to improve their everyday lives, she said. Working with home care aides is a novel approach to reaching the growing frail population.

In the United States, 57 million people, or 18.5 percent of the population, are 60 years old or more, according to U.S. census data. The government estimates this population will number about 92.1 million by 2030.

Most people want to continue living in their community as long as possible, Muramatsu said, and home care aides help them do that by assisting with activities such as bathing, dressing, and eating. One study found there are 2.5 million home health and personal care aides in the United States and almost one million more could be doing the work on an informal basis. Because of the aging population, it is one of the fastest growing job sectors, with a growth rate of about 50 percent expected from 2008 to 2018. Most aides are women age 45 or older, from racial or ethnic minorities, with a high school education or less. They earn around $9 per hour.

In a previous study, Muramatsu found that many home care aides would like to do more to improve their clients’ lives. “Home care aides play very important roles in these frail seniors’ lives, especially for seniors who don’t have family,” she said.

Adding the physical activity program to the aides’ job duties could help them move beyond their traditional role and advance professionally. “The important thing is to empower these home care aides. Their work has been underappreciated and undervalued,” she said.

Muramatsu’s previous research includes studies on long-term care policy and the role of health care systems in improving the lives of older adults. She hopes this type of home-based program will become part of the health care system in the United States and around the world. It is oriented to prevention and not expensive, she said.

She wants to design a program that works in real-life situations. “I’m interested in a sustainable program that is effective — something that works, something that motivates people,” she said.

This study builds on previous work of many individuals and organizations, according to Muramatsu. She will work with an interdisciplinary group of researchers, the state, and multiple community partners on the study. Co-investigators include Michael L. Berbaum, senior biostatistician at UIC’s Institute for Health Research and Policy, and David X. Marquez, assistant professor of kinesiology and nutrition.

The project is supported by a grant from the National Institute on Aging, one of the National Institutes of Health, under award number R21AG042801.

This news release was written by Kerry O’Rourke, a master’s degree student in the UIC School of Public Health.