If you have a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease (AD), you may be acutely aware of the toll that caring for another’s needs (particularly full-time) can pay on one’s overall well-being. But you may not be aware of findings from a recent study that discovered the unfavorable physical effects of caregiving were not nearly as severe as the psychological effects.
The study, published on PubMed, examined the mental and physical health outcomes for caregivers (as reported in the literature over the past 30 years). An extensive span of outcome data was examined (including cell and organ based physiologic measures). Scientists gathered data from psychiatric health status indicators as well as participant self-reports on health habits.
Primary stressors were linked to these outcomes. For example, one stressor included how long the caregiving tasks were performed and how severe the cognitive deficits of the care recipient were. Other stressors were also considered in the study, including financial pressure and family conflict. Symptoms that were noticed resulting from these stressors included, psychological distress, impaired health habits, adverse physiologic responses, psychiatric and physical illness, and death.
Scientists discovered that the negative physical effects of caregiving (evaluated by self-reports and measures such as stress hormone levels) were not as severe as the psychological effects. The caregivers in the study who provided intensive assistance with activities of daily living exhibited neglect of the caregivers’ own health (forgetting medical appointments and eating a low-quality diet).
The study concluded that the outcome of physical well-being of caregivers was closely associated with the care recipient’s level of care required. For example, caregivers of those who needed an intense amount of supervision (such as for safety purposes), and who had a high level of functional disabilities, behavioral issues, and cognitive deficits, experienced negative physical health outcomes. Another factor that was identified as a major influence on physical well-being was whether the caregiver was living full time with the person with AD.
Some factors examined in the study were consistent with greater degrees of depression and stress and low ratings of subjective well-being in caregivers. Factors that impacted the level of psychological well-being of caregivers included: behavior problems, cognitive impairment, functional disabilities, the level of care required and the caregiver’s age (older caregivers were more affected) and sex (females more severely affected). The relationship of the caregiver to the care recipient was also a factor, with spouses having the greatest impact on emotional well-being. These factors played a role in the severity of negative well-being in caregivers. Caregiving for a person with dementia translated to higher levels of overall distress and depression.
It is important to note that approximately a third of the caregivers in the study reported they did not experience mental or physical health deficits. This group of caregivers assigned a high level of meaning and purpose to their role as a caregiver.
In conclusion of the study, researchers discovered that chronic stress associated with caregiving resulted in a detriment to both physical and psychological health. Depression was one of the most common negative effect noted in the study. Caring for a person with dementia caused more severe health effects than all other types of caregiving. All caregiving experience is not necessarily negative. Some caregivers named several positive outcomes of caregiving including, an increase in self-worth, stronger family ties and the experience of learning new skills.
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