By John Salak –
Alzheimer’s is undoubtedly a devasting and cruel disease that currently affects six million people in the U.S. alone, stripping away memories and cognitive abilities. What’s less known, but almost equally troubling, is the devastating impact the disease has on family and caregivers of Alzheimer’s patients.
More than 60 percent of these caregivers suffer from at least mild depressive symptoms by the time the actual Alzheimer’s patient is diagnosed. Beyond this, it is estimated that up to one-third will see their depressive symptoms worsen during the next five years. The impact undercuts a caregiver’s health, financial resources and their ability to help the family member in need.
A study by the University of Eastern Finland underscored the troubling and often unrealized impact the disease has on caregivers. It studied the caregiving families of Alzheimer patients over five years and found that 61 percent of these supporting individuals experienced depressive symptoms by the time the patient was diagnosed. One-third got significantly worse, especially in the third and fifth years after the Alzheimer’s diagnosis (AD).
Women caring for their spouses appeared most at risk of developing severe depression, although the functional ability of the patient or the severity of their disease were not necessarily factors in increasing the risk for depression.
“According to this study, about one-third of family caregivers experience persistent depression when giving family care. It seems that the severity or progression of the memory disorder does not explain family caregivers’ symptoms, but they are rather related to individual backgrounds,” reported Adjunct Professor Tarja Välimäki. “Family caregivers enter the caregiving situation, which often lasts many years, from different backgrounds, and these differences persist.”
The Finnish study’s results could help develop programs to identify caregivers at risk to lessen the impact for both their benefit and that of the patient.
“It is important to consider the health of the family caregiver already when looking into the situation of the individual with AD. Assessment and continuous monitoring of family caregivers’ health and well-being should be included in the treatment of memory disorders,” Välimäki says.
The issues and rising health risks associated with family caregiving patients with Alzheimer’s or other health issues are a worldwide phenomenon due to the aging population and the shortage of professional caregivers. Family caregiving for example not only increases the risk of depression, it can also create enormous financial strains on family members.
A Harris Poll reported that 13 percent of family caregivers, who are rarely paid, had to quit their jobs to take care of their patient and 24 percent had to significantly reduce their hours.
Not surprisingly, nearly half, 47 percent, reported that caregiving is a financial burden.
Ultimately, the issues and risks involved in caregiving are not going to decrease. It is therefore essential for family caregivers to prepare themselves for the challenges involved to protect themselves and be able to provide more effective support.
It is important to plan ahead if family caregiving is likely to be needed. This would include examining and preparing for the financial considerations as well as logistical and therapeutic support. WebMD also recommends doing as much related research as possible in advance and reaching out to local and regional organizations and research centers that might be able to offer support and guidance.
The Mayo Clinic also stresses the need for caregivers to take care of themselves in order to better deal with the stresses involved in helping a family member long-term. The clinic recommends asking for and accepting help in almost any form. Joining support groups and being connected to caregiving resources that might help in everything from meal deliveries to house cleaning is also wise.
It is also critical for caregivers to look after their own well-being, which includes getting sufficient sleep, eating properly, securing some personal time and at least trying to get a walk in daily.