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One Simple Question: Are You a Caregiver?

Over the years there have been a number of studies that have shown the ill effects of caregiving on the health and mental health of the caregiver – and mostly it is not good news. For those older spousal caregivers and in particular those who are caring for a spouse with dementia, a decline in health of the caregiver would not be unexpected.

A new study released in May in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society entitled, Greater Risk of Dementia When Spouse Has Dementia? The Cache County Study (Norton, M.C. et al 2010), tracked 229 couples when one was diagnosed with dementia and found that their spousal caregivers had a six times greater risk for developing dementia than for those couples without a diagnosis of dementia. The study did not look at why this might be happening but rather focused on the increased risk factor for developing dementia for spousal caregivers.

Other studies in the past have looked at the increased mortality risk for older spousal caregivers of those with dementia. For those who fit that profile, the risk is six times greater that older spousal caregivers will die sooner than their non-caregiving contemporaries. Again, this is a troubling and downcast message.

So what can be done? For starters, let’s take seriously the impact of constant care provision on the health and mental health of the caregiver. For older caregivers, this is especially important. Instead of just teaching better patient care skills, we should also be focusing on health prevention measures for the caregiver. Instead of urging the caregiver to “self-identify” so they can seek help, let’s ask the question, “Are you a caregiver?” on health history forms so referrals to community services that provide caregivers interventions can be made and health prevention measures be taken at the point of a physician visit.

While many families are quite resilient, all caregivers face challenges at some point. For older spousal caregivers, it appears that special efforts need to be made to target those who may be most at risk. And given the numbers of persons potentially in this group now and in the future, this issue is truly a public health concern.

For original articles, please see:

Norton, M.C., et al. 2010. Greater risk of dementia when spouse has dementia? The Cache County Study. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, 58 (May): 895-900.
DOI: 10.1111/j.1532-5415.2010.02806.x
Schulz, R., Beach, S.R., Caregiving as a Risk Factor for Mortality: The Caregiver Health Effects Study, JAMA. 1999;282:2215-2219.