Building friendly robots – and other new ideas for caregiving

This post is the third in a series produced for a Harvard Kennedy School field class on innovation in government. Our team is working with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to improve services for family caregivers.

"But don't forget the Alexa!" Matt repeated, exasperated at our efforts. Holding a purple sticker, his hand waved over a table chock-full of papers and contraptions, including mock-ups of training videos, calendars, forums, and even "Berto," an adorable, smart drug-dispensing robot.

It was a Tuesday night at Harvard's Science Center when our team reconvened after spring break to begin finding the best answer for our guiding question:

How can we better support family caregivers, particularly through digital tools and services?

Equipped with this mission and the insights gained from speaking with more than 20 caregivers, we left for spring break with a commitment to developing at least ten ideas each of how to address this question. We returned ready to discuss the different solutions we had brainstormed and developed into real-life examples through cardboard cutouts and mock iPhone screens.

Our team produced 42 distinct, yet interconnected ideas and from there, Kate led us through rounds of voting, each more difficult than the last. We voted according to how completely each idea would solve the issues we heard caregivers express. It was clear each of us had chosen to tackle slightly different problems facing the caregiver community so we ended up spending a good deal of time discussing how ideas should be combined.

Our team members reviewing and narrowing down our ideas. The 42 prototypes included two robots, training videos, caregiver portals, and calendar applications

Our team members reviewing and narrowing down our ideas. The 42 prototypes included two robots, training videos, caregiver portals, and calendar applications

We ultimately agreed on three main ideas, each taking a different path towards resolving the conflicts and concerns caregivers had shared with our team:

1. Caregiver Forum

We've found that caregivers often learn the most from one another. Their unique situation makes it difficult for civilians to sympathize and provide adequate guidance. To meet this need, we've sketched out a website where caregivers can easily connect to one another according to location or other filtered categories such as branch of service, era of conflict, etc. If a caregiver is simply searching for a listening ear, he or she could easily find another caregiver to turn to, and if they seek information about navigating VA, they could join a chatroom tackling those issues. It would also provide training videos and links offering help on anything from financial planning to respite care.

2. Website

This webpage, part of the larger, would personalize resources for the caregiver according the caregiver’s answers to a few questions about their lifestyle. After all, a caregiver living in rural Missouri has different needs and resources available than a caregiver living in New York City.

3. Caregiving Coordinator Administrator

Our final idea includes a centralized application that allows caregiver coordinators (the VA social workers and professionals who help caregivers navigate the health system) to easily access information about caregivers in their local area and hopefully provide quicker and more effective support. Any needs from a caregiver could be quickly delegated and answered by the coordinator through the use of the app.

We look forward to working with VA to narrow down our three prototypes to one final idea that we can test with caregivers.

Dani Cinali, Brandon Lee, Amelia Sampat, Katherine Spies and Matthew Spector