Caregivers who use adult day care services to help them look after a loved one with dementia may experience less stress than those who forgo this important resource, says a University of Pennsylvania study.

Over the course of eight days, researchers monitored the moods and blood levels of DHEA-S (a hormone thought to buffer the effects of stress on the body and mind) of more than 150 dementia caregivers who sought out the services of an adult day care center at least twice a week.

Lead author Steven Zarit, Ph.D., head of the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at Penn State University, and his colleagues found that caregivers' overall demeanor and DHEA-S levels were both elevated on the day immediately after their loved one spent time at an adult day care center, leading to the conclusion that using this service can have significant stress-relieving benefits for those caring for a family member with dementia at home.

"Regular use of adult day services may help reduce depletion of DHEA-S and allow the body to mount a protective and restorative response to the physiologic demands of caregiving," the authors note in "The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry."

Demystifying adult day care

The term "adult day care" may conjure up scenes of older adults being treated like children and playing with toys, but nothing could be further from the truth.

"People are not aware of all the cognitive stimulation and health benefits that an individual can get by going to a center," says Debbie Stricoff, director of adult day services at the Visiting Nurse Service of New York (VNSNY) CHOICE Adult Day Center. "It's a center to promote wellness; a place where people can improve their functioning."

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Stricoff argues that a societal shift needs to occur in how adult day care is perceived. "These are places where people's conditions can actually get better."

Each day care program is different, but the CHOICE Center offers those with dementia a host of activities, ranging from informal socialization time, to exercise and art-therapy classes, to reminiscence activities. Caregivers are sometime invited to participate in group crafts and holiday celebrations.

The right adult day care center can offer caregivers an invaluable respite opportunity, while providing engaging activities for individuals living with Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia. Stricoff says it's important to keep in mind the following criteria when scoping out the centers near you:

  • Ensure there are enough staff members to look after and attend the men and women at the center. The National Adult Day Services Association, a nationwide organization geared towards developing and advocating for adult day services, recommends that programs catering men and women with dementia have a one to four staff-to-participant ratio.
  • Peruse the activity calendar to see whether they offer events and activities that your loved one would enjoy participating in.
  • Be on the lookout for odd odors or an unclean facility.
  • Check to see what transportation options are available to get your loved one to and from the center.
  • If your loved one has specific dietary needs, be sure to inquire whether the center can accommodate them.
  • Ask about the types of personal care services (e.g. toileting, eating) are offered.