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New Study Reveals That Appreciation Lowers Level of Spousal Caregiver Burden

Caring for a spouse with Alzheimer’s disease (AD) can be one of the most physically and emotionally challenging roles a person can experience in life. Yet, recent studies indicate that certain circumstances may actually have a positive influence on caregiver stress.

With all of the studies, online publications, and warnings about how Alzheimer’s caregiving causes an increased risk of illness, it’s interesting to learn about a new study that highlights some optimistic aspects of caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease(AD).

A recent study, led by Joan Monin, at Yale School of Public Health, was published in the American Psychological Association’s journal Health Psychology.

In the study, Michael Poulin, Associate Professor at the University of Buffalo’s psychology department, evaluated the justification behind the idea that the time spousal caregivers spend actively helping a loved one with AD could help the caregiver’s sense of well-being—but only when some specific conditions were present.  Poulin is considered an expert in the fields of human generosity, empathy and stress. 

Although the demands of energy, required by caregiving, are normally associated with stress, resulting from endless caregiving tasks; recent research shows that time spent actively helping a person with AD can, in fact, improve the caregiver’s sense of well-being.  “Spending time attempting to provide help can be beneficial for a caregiver’s mental and physical well-being, but only during those times when the caregiver sees that their help has made a difference and that difference is noticed and recognized by their partner,” Poulin says.  “These conclusions are important because we know that spousal caregiving is an enormous burden, emotionally, physically and economically,” says Poulin. “If we can find ways for community resources to help create those conditions, we might be able to make a difference in the lives of millions of people.”

Due to the intense demands of caregiving, spouses who care for a loved one with AD commonly exhibit symptoms, such as decreased immune system function, and other physical and mental signs of stress.  But, recent studies show that providing help can lessen the typical symptoms that many spousal caregivers experience.  “The problem is that when you’re a caregiver, not all of your time is spent helping,” says Poulin. “Sometimes all you can do is witness the person’s state while being passively on duty.”

“This is what we wanted to get at,” says Poulin. “We knew that something about being helpful is good in these circumstances. But why? Is it just being active? Is doing something better than doing nothing? Or is it that doing something to improve another person’s well-being is what matters?”

The Study

Two studies involved spouses who recorded their emotions after providing caregiving services. 

The first study involved 73 participants who recorded activities related to caregiving; they also kept track of the emotions associated with caregiving tasks every 3 hours.  These recordings assisted researchers in evaluating which activities were taking place, to what level the caregiving tasks engendered positive emotions (such as gratitude) in each care recipient, and subsequently, how the process effected the caregivers.

Study number 2 involved 43 caregivers who each recorded information in a daily diary that included details on the caregiving tasks they performed, and just how appreciated each caregiver felt. 

Study Conclusions

The studies concluded that the spouse caregiver participants who felt appreciated were happier in their caregiving tasks and had fewer symptoms of stress. “Importantly, this study adds to a growing body of evidence showing that it is important to target emotional communication between spouses in daily support interactions to improve psychological well-being in the context of chronic conditions and disability,” the study authors documented.

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