Caregiver Stress Addressed in New Study

by Beverly Amsler

Caring for a spouse or elderly parent could put you at greater risk for becoming sick or developing a disease.  That’s according to a study conducted by the researchers in the Gerontology Department at Virginia Tech.

Karen Roberto and her colleagues looked at how caregivers-primarily spouses-handle changes caused when their loved one suffers from mild cognitive impairment, and if it’s affecting the caregiver’s health.  Roberto say MCI is a decline in one’s executive functioning of the brain which doesn’t cause huge interruptions in the patient’s everyday life but is outside the range of normal aging and can lead to dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Thirty spouses kept a diary for a week about their feelings, what behaviors the loved one was exhibiting at the time, and if there were confrontations, especially between husband and wife.

“We found that, in fact, these spouses in this very early stage of memory loss were feeling great stress of the changes that was happening in their relationships.  And so, when we asked them about things that were going on in their lives, there was heightened, oftentimes stress and anxiety.”

She thinks the stress is linked to the change in behavior of the person with the illness.  “One of the things that often occurs with MCI is that the person may appear more apathetic.  So that they don’t take initiative.  And so, there’s maybe stepping back some and so the spouse sort of has to have a watchful eye.”

According to Roberto, the caregiver may not realize this is a symptom of the disease and they want their loved one to “just try harder”.

The researchers also collected saliva to look at biomarkers for physiological changes and  found the caregivers’ cortisol levels increased as a reaction to stress.

“When there were these difficulties, that we saw spikes in the changes in physiological measures.  And we also saw greater reports of daily stress.  And that leads us to say that even though by definition MCI is said to have little or no major changes in daily life, it’s enough of a change that is causing disruption to the family.”

Roberto says if the caregiver lives apart from the family member, they take that stress with them, which could complicate their home life and over time, possibly put them at a greater risk for contracting a disease.  She hopes to use the research as a way for communities to help create a support system for caregivers.

“You see this with really adult children.  It’s sort of that pileup of stressors.  So you have multiple roles and you’re kind of on multiple pathways in your life.  So you’re  mom or dad to maybe young or teenage children.  You’re in a relationship with your partner.  And then you have Mom or Dad that you’re concerned about it.  And so, that can be very stressful.”

“What we’re hoping to really look at in the future is interventions that will really help people, one-understand what is happening in this early stage, and then look more towards how the family as well as the community can provide support for those individuals.”

Roberto says they want to do a larger study and determine if men and women are affected differently in their roles as caregiver.

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