When it comes to assisting dementia caregivers, the traditional "one size fits all" approach to caregiver support may be woefully ineffective, according to a recent analysis.
Support groups, informational seminars, and question and answer sessions with medical professionals and caregiving experts are undeniably beneficial for family caregivers. However, researchers from the Rhode Island Hospital have concluded that people taking care of an elderly loved one may derive more benefit from a custom-made style of support.
"Caregiver burden has often been treated as a single construct," says lead study author, Beth Springate, Ph.D.
Springate and her colleagues interviewed more than 200 family caregivers in order to pinpoint the precise sources of their stress. They found that each caregiver's burden was driven by a unique set of factors, which included feelings of embarrassment, frustration, and guilt. Caregivers were also greatly impacted by how the act of taking care of an elderly loved one was impacting their physical and social well-being.
Of her team's findings, Springate says, "We were surprised to see that caregiver burden could be broken down into several different elements, each of which uniquely contributed to the sense of stress caregivers experienced."
Similar tasks, singular situations
No two caregiver experiences are the same. There may be similarities and common themes, but every person who decides to take care of a loved one will be faced with a singular set of challenges and joys.
Different diseases require different physical, mental and emotional skill sets, and the relationship a caregiver has with his or her family member also has a significant impact on that individual's attitude and approach to caregiving.
For instance, an adult child taking care of an elderly parent with Alzheimer's who abused them while they were growing up will face a very different set of challenges than a wife taking care of her husband with Parkinson's disease.
Indeed, the Rhode Island Hospital researcher found that the men and women who were more emotionally distant from their care receivers typically found the task of caregiving far more challenging than those who shared a closer bond with the person they were taking care of. A number of factors likely contribute to this finding, however Springate hypothesizes that having a positive relationship with an ill relative may enable caregivers to more easily find meaning and purpose in "giving back" to their loved one.
Another interesting conclusion: adult children who were taking care of their elderly parents reported being more burdened by caregiving than spouses who were taking care of their significant other. Again, this conclusion could be caused by a number of factors, however adult children are more likely to be saddled with multiple caregiving responsibilities as members of the "sandwich generation"—taking care of both elderly relatives and young children at the same time.
Re-defining the caregiver's burden
For anyone who has spent time taking care of an elderly family member, the notion that each caregiver's situation is unique is not earth-shattering, it's obvious.
Springate says, "Although there are common themes, everyone's caregiving situation is somewhat different, and our research suggests there is no one approach to reducing caregiver burden that will work for everyone."
The problem is, the concept of "caregiver burden" is too often tackled in a generic manner. Widely-applicable advice on how to relax and reduce stress levels is easily found and can be very beneficial. But for some caregivers, these strategies alone may not be enough.
The best place to start is by accurately (and honestly) identifying what aspects of caregiving are most challenging for you.
For example, you may be having a difficult time trying to manage the 15 different medications your father is taking for his Parkinson's and heart disease. Or you may be lost as to how to handle your loved one's dementia-fueled behaviors.
After that, it becomes an issue of seeking out interventions that can help your particular set of problems.
Having trouble juggling multiple medications? Try asking your loved one's doctor or pharmacist for strategies to simplify the process.
Dementia behaviors becoming too much to handle? Enlist the help of other caregivers for tips to manage and emotionally cope with your loved one's outbursts. An online support group can be a great way to learn from men and women who've experienced similar situations with their loved ones.
Here are a few additional resources to help you start pinpointing and managing your individual caregiver needs: