Circles of Care

New programs help people care for loved ones with Alzheimer’s

| Mar-.Apr. 2008

  • CirclesofCare

    image by Ilana Kohn

  • CirclesofCare

There are roughly 5 million people with Alzheimer’s disease in the United States, and as the baby boomers age, experts predict that this number will more than triple by 2050. People live anywhere from 3 to 20 years after the onset of Alzheimer’s symptoms and eventually need total, around-the-clock care. Ever more spouses and children will be caring for a loved one as he or she slowly disappears before their eyes.

A nationwide study of caregivers released in 2006 by the National Alliance for Caregiving documented the fact that caregivers “find themselves in a downward spiral of health that worsens as a result of giving care.” A 1999 study by Richard Schulz and Scott Beach of the University of Pittsburgh found that elderly, caregiving spouses had a 63 percent higher mortality rate than their non-caregiving peers.

“Dementia caregiving is [especially] difficult for the caregiver because the people aren’t often aware of how much help they need,” says Dolores Gallagher-Thompson, director of Stanford University’s Older Adult and Family Center. “As the disease progresses, they can’t even recognize the caregiver anymore, which can be a huge psychological burden and stress.”

Fortunately, new research indicates that with the proper help, caregivers can make significant strides in their ability to care for their loved ones—and maintain their own mental health. For instance, a study published in 2006 by Mary Mittelman, a director of New York University’s Institute for Aging and Dementia, reported that providing caregivers with support groups and one-on-one counseling can delay their need to place an Alzheimer’s patient in a nursing facility by as much as a year and a half.

As part of a study led by Schulz at the University of Pittsburgh in 2006, caregivers met with counselors about a dozen times over six months to learn relaxation techniques and work on ways to give better care, such as learning how to identify and respond to the problem behaviors that come with Alzheimer’s disease. Study participants not only benefited from the training almost immediately, they were also more likely to accept their loved one’s passing as a positive change.

“The study showed that things you do for caregivers while they’re still caregiving may carry over and benefit them afterwards,” says Schulz. “Anything you can do to ease the burden of caregiving before death also has benefits for easing bereavement and complications and grief after death.”

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