Mason researchers develop first social media intervention for Chinese American dementia caregivers

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Led by Alicia Hong, professor of Health Administration and Policy, the interdisciplinary team developed a culturally-tailored WeChat wellness program to improve caregiver skills and reduce their stress.

More than 6 million Americans aged 65 years and older are living with Alzheimer's disease or related dementias (ADRD). More than 11 million family caregivers of ADRD provide an estimated 15.3 billion hours of unpaid care valued at $255.7 billion a year. Family caregivers of ADRD experience high rates of psychosocial distress and negative health outcomes. Minority and immigrant family caregivers face additional barriers; however, few culturally tailored mobile health (mHealth) were designed for these populations.

To address this public health need, George Mason University researcher Alicia Hong, professor of Health Administration and Policy, led a multidisciplinary research team to develop Wellness Enhancement for Caregivers (WECARE) program to improve caregiving skills, reduce distress, and improve psychosocial well-being of underserved Chinese American family caregivers of ADRD. The protocol development of WECARE was recently published on JMIR Aging. To the best of the researchers’ knowledge, this is the first culturally tailored social media-based interventions for Chinese American dementia caregivers.

According to Hong, several cultural factors can influence caregivers’ experience. Chinese American family caregivers tend to keep problems within the family and do not seek external help because of the stigma associated with dementia and their cultural value of “saving the face.” The isolation is exacerbated by their minority and immigrant status, and those without English proficiency are further marginalized. Caregivers have limited knowledge and use of formal care and support services; they are also disconnected from “mainstream” dementia support groups due to language and cultural barriers.

“We developed this wellness program for Chinese American caregivers with the specific barriers they face in mind. We wanted them to see themselves in the program and get the most out of it to help them and the family member they care for. We hope more mHealth interventions can be developed for immigrant and minority caregivers,” said Hong.

WECARE is a seven-week mHealth program delivered via WeChat, a social media app popular among Chinese Americans. By subscribing to the WECARE official account, users can receive multiple interactive multimedia articles pushed to their WeChat accounts each week. Users also have the option of joining group chats for peer support.

Other team members of WECARE include Kang Shen, a recent Mason graduate from the Health Informatics master’s program; Kate Lu and Hsiaoyin Chen from Chinese Culture and Community Center, Inc; Yang Gong of University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston School of Biomedical Informatics; Van Ta Park of University of California San Francisco School of Nursing; and Hae-Ra Han of Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing.

The team is currently testing the feasibility and effectiveness of WECARE. The study was funded by Virginia Center for Aging Alzheimer’s and Related Diseases Research Award Fund. The study protocol was approved by the Institutional Review Board of George Mason University.