A new program set to begin Oct. 15 aims to put New Canaan on the vanguard of a national health care change. The Telehealth pilot program was approved by the Board of Selectmen at its Sept. 18 meeting.
The idea behind the program is to use modern technology to improve health wellness in seniors, hopefully resulting in seniors staying in their homes longer and living healthier lives.
Ten seniors between the ages of 70 and 85 will receive iPads or Acer tablets by which they will communicate by teleconferencing with a nurse two to three times per week.
The participants in the program will also receive medical equipment with which to take measurements of their vital signs, such as blood pressure, weight and heart rate.
They will go over a punch list of questions, such as how they have been feeling and how they have been sleeping.
The program is focused on wellness.
The group's presentation to the Board of Selectmen noted that more than half of health care costs in the United States are spent on "lifestyle diseases," or non-communicable diseases related to health risks like smoking, obesity and diet.
By focusing on wellness, the program hopes to serve as a preventative measure, combating disease before it starts.
Given the high and rising cost of health care, preventing disease could significantly lower the price tag.
Total outlays on health care in the United States are expected to be $569 billion in 2012, increasing every year, reaching $938 billion by 2020.
Enrollees in Medicare are expected to rise from 46.7 million people to 62 million in 2020.
The hope is that such an approach to the maintenance of wellness will result in less time spent in the hospital or nursing home, both of which can be unpleasant and expensive, according to Jim Lisher, chairman of the Health and Human Services Commission.
"You want to keep (seniors) out of institutions because, No. 1, they don't want to be in institutions, and No. 2, institutions are very expensive. It's an awesome cost," Lisher said.
Carol McDonald, director of Health and Human Services, who runs the program with Lisher, added that allowing seniors to stay in their own homes for as long as possible is a goal in and of itself.
"Most people want to stay at home, that's where they're comfortable," she said in an interview. "Their surroundings are familiar, they get into a routine. Most people thrive very well in own homes."
In addition, the seniors will receive training sessions to familiarize them with the technology. Lisher said the simplicity of the technology should allow seniors to get used to it pretty quickly.
"These machines are ridiculously simple," he said. "There's basically a red button and a green button. Turning it on and off may be the biggest challenge. That's part of the test too, seeing how comfortable our participants are with the technology."
The program will cost $24,000, all of which was raised privately. The nurse who will provide the extra attention to those in the study is employed by the town.
Lisher said the program represents a great partnership with the town government.
"It's a classic public/private partnership, the capital equipment was funded privately, the town will provide professional labor," he said at the BOS meeting.
Selectman Nick Williams praised the program and the fact that it is privately funded.
"This is a fabulous program," he said. "It's terrific that it's self-funded. I think it is about wellness. I would encourage you going forward, once we start getting to see benefits and costs it may be something we want to build into the budget. I think it's great to be innovative."
Lisher explained what an important part of the community seniors, and the baby-boom generation, now know as "rising seniors," are.
"Seventy-five percent of adults in New Canaan are seniors," he said. "Twenty-three percent are 65 and up. When they get to be 65 and empty nesters, you don't want to have this group of people leaving for Florida or wherever. When we started in 2010 we asked, `what is the value of a senior and why do you want them to stay in town?' "
Lisher said seniors account for more than $20 million each year in property taxes and receive much less in services from the town than the average resident.
Seniors also provide much funding for nonprofit organizations in town, Lisher estimated that roughly two-thirds of donations to nonprofit organizations come from seniors. Additionally, seniors account for a good amount of the volunteer labor donated around town.
He said that the volunteer positions at the Waveny House were filled by seniors and estimated that seniors comprise one-third of all volunteer labor in the town.
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