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Helping the helpers. “Caregiving is such a gentle word, yet caregivers experience ferocious feelings,” says Lauren Storck, a fellow at the Boston University Gerontology Center. A clinical psychologist with expertise in group dynamics, Storck has been studying how new technologies can be used to provide social and emotional support for both family and paid caregivers.

“Caregiving affects everyone in the family,” she says. “While it is done with love by family, friends, and paid providers, it requires extraordinary amounts of patience and time to deal with the complicated special needs of people with chronic illness and disability.” Therefore, it is crucial that caregivers maintain their own health.

Storck and her research partner, John Storck, an assistant professor of information systems in the School of Management, have just completed a study of the potential of the Internet to provide effective support for busy caregivers. They studied a large online caregiver support group, analyzing more than 26,000 e-mails — representing daily exchanges over many months — for content and process to determine if participation significantly helped caregivers manage stress.

The researchers used qualitative and quantitative analyses of online interaction. A count of negative and positive words revealed that participation in the group for three months or longer resulted in a significant decline in the use of burden words. The more frequently a caregiver “spoke” in the group, the greater the benefit. Interestingly, shorter e-mails produced the best effect.

Narrative analyses revealed the need for caregivers to be recognized and appreciated by others who understand the amount of complex work involved. The researchers noted that the group’s interactions provided the kind of support that a family might otherwise provide, and group dynamics were characterized by interactions such as mirroring and exchange that help create a community of caring peers.

Storck noted that while face-to-face support groups may be one’s first choice, the Internet is a satisfying and effective resource that people who are busy and working full-time can use to care for their own needs and share information and support.

This research was funded by a National Institute on Aging Research Training Grant to Professor Elisabeth W. Markson, academic director of the Gerontology Center. It will be presented at the annual meeting of the Gerontological Society of America, being held in Boston this month.

Noisy shoes? Adding noise to your shoes may improve your balance according to a new study by Jim Collins, a UNI professor, an ENG professor of biomedical engineering, and codirector of the Center for BioDynamics, and Attila Priplata (ENG ’04), a biomedical engineering Ph.D. student. The noise is not a product of squeaky shoes, however. It is an engineering term that refers to random fluctuations in a signal — like peripheral conversations in a crowded room or static on a radio station.

Collins has previously demonstrated that random noise introduced at a subsensory level (just below the intensity where it is consciously perceived) can enhance perception in various sensory systems — a phenomenon known as stochastic resonance. In the current study, he and his colleagues found that gentle random vibrations to the feet helped subjects better maintain their balance.

The researchers noted that people correct their balance when they detect increased pressure on the sole of their foot on one side. People who are elderly or who have nerve damage may have more difficulty perceiving the imbalance, making them more prone to falling.

To measure the effect of adding noise, the researchers asked subjects to stand on a randomly vibrating platform, and then measured the sway in their bodies. They found that people swayed several millimeters less in each direction when the platform was vibrating, even without feeling the vibrations.

Although numerous technical challenges remain, Collins and Priplata hope to develop vibrating insoles that could help unstable walkers better maintain their balance and avoid dangerous falls.

"Research Briefs" is written by Joan Schwartz in the Office of the Provost. To read more about BU research, visit http://www.bu.edu/research.

       

15 May 2003
Boston University
Office of University Relations