November is Family Caregivers Month. Sponsored by the Caregiver Action Network (formerly the National Family Caregivers Association), this event is a time to recognize and honor family caregivers who do so much for their loved ones. This year’s theme, “Take Care to Give Care,” reminds us that caregiving can be stressful and can tax the health of caregivers—making it harder for them to provide good care for their loved ones.
November is also National Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Month, which is also fitting, because the millions of Americans who provide care for a loved one with dementia are so deserving of our support! While we are advocating for increased resources for people with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, we shouldn’t overlook the needs of the millions of dementia caregivers, who work tirelessly to ensure the best quality of life for their loved ones.
While many adult children serve as dementia caregivers, an increasing number of spouses are filling the role. A study performed by a leading researcher on Alzheimer’s caregivers issues sheds light on the need to support these spouse caregivers.
Spouses of people with Alzheimer’s disease usually are older adults. While people who take on the caregiving role tend to initially be healthier than those who do not, caring for someone with Alzheimer’s disease is difficult in the best of circumstances, and can take a toll on a person’s health. Counseling and support for people caring for a spouse with Alzheimer’s disease helps to preserve their health, according to a study led by Mary S. Mittelman, Dr.P.H., research professor in the Department of Psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine.
The study resulted from research conducted over 20 years by Dr. Mittelman, which was the longest research study ever devoted to testing an intervention to improve the well-being of Alzheimer’s caregivers. The study involved 406 spouse caregivers of people with Alzheimer’s disease who were divided equally into two groups. The first group received enhanced counseling and support, including six sessions of individual and family counseling, support groups, and telephone counseling for the caregiver and family members as needed. The second group received information and help upon request, but didn’t participate in formal counseling sessions.
Results from the ongoing study showed that caregiver spouses who received enhanced counseling and support were able to delay placing their ailing spouse in a nursing home on average 1½ years longer. Dr. Mittelman and her colleagues also found that counseling and support substantially eased the depression of spouse caregivers.
Caregivers in the study who received the intervention, which was developed at NYU Medical Center by Dr. Mittelman and her colleagues, also reported less of a decline in their own physical health. Dr. Mittelman pointed out, “Preserving the health of spouse caregivers through counseling and support also benefits the person with Alzheimer’s disease, as caregivers who are in poor health are more likely to have difficulty providing good care.” Dr. Mittelman concluded, “Individualized counseling programs that improve social support for caregivers can have many indirect benefits, including sustaining their physical health.”
In 2015, Dr. Mittelman and her team received a grant to develop the NYU Caregiver Integrated Support and Services Access Program (CISSAP), aimed at providing counseling and support to New York City caregivers, which is expected to provide increased insight into effective interventions.