Caring for a loved one with dementia is no easy task and while it’s difficult to watch them live with the disease, it can also increase emotional and physical stress for caregivers and increase their risk of depression, anxiety and even death. A lot of the help and services available focus on education around dementia and overcoming challenging behaviours, but it can be difficult to address ways of reducing the emotional burden on carers.
Researchers from Northwestern University in the US have now developed a new method to help carers cope with these feelings by teaching participants new ways of focusing on positive emotions. After six weeks, carers were found to experience less anxiety and depression and reported better physical health and positive attitudes.
The method includes eight skills designed to increase positive emotions, including noticing and capitalising on positive events, gratitude, mindfulness, positive reappraisal, personal strengths, attainable goals and acts of kindness. The trial saw 170 dementia caregivers randomly assigned to one of two groups.
The first intervention group learned positive emotion skills through sessions called LEAF (life enhancing activities for family caregivers). These participants were asked to recognise daily positive events and keep a gratitude journal. A second control group simply filled out daily questionnaires about their emotions.
In six weekly sessions, caregivers reviewed positive emotion skills and were asked to practice the skills learned. For example, if the topic was an act of kindness, participants would be asked to practice an act of kindness.
Researchers noted LEAF participants had a 7 per cent greater drop in depression and a 9 per cent greater drop in anxiety compared to the control group. Depression symptoms also decreased from moderate levels to a normal range, while participants in the control group saw small decreases but remained within the mild to moderate range of depressive symptoms.
“People are living longer with dementias like Alzheimer’s disease, and their long-term care is falling to family members and friends,” lead study author Judith Moskowitz said in a statement.
“This intervention is one way we can help reduce the stress and burden and enable them to provide better care.”
What’s more is the new positive-emotion intervention doesn’t require a licensed therapist and can be widely implemented, meaning it’s an affordable and easy-to-access tool for busy caregivers. In the study, LEAF sessions were presented by a facilitator via a web conference on the internet, something researchers say is important in reaching caregivers in rural areas where support services aren’t as common.
Researchers will next launch a new study to compare this facilitated version of the intervention with a self-guided online version to assess which one is more useful for carers. If the self-guided version is as effective as the facilitated one, researchers believe the program could be implemented at an even cheaper cost and help an increasing number of dementia caregivers.
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