Caring for family members with dementia—which is on the rise in the U.S.—causes significant emotional and physical stress that increases caregivers' risk of depression, anxiety and death.
A new method of coping with that stress by teaching people how to focus on positive emotions reduced their anxiety and depression after six weeks, reports a new national Northwestern Medicine study. It also resulted in better self-reported physical health and positive attitudes toward caregiving.
"The caregivers who learned the skills had less depression, better self-reported physical health, more feelings of happiness and other positive emotions than the control group," said lead study author Judith Moskowitz, professor of medical social sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. She also is director of research at the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at Feinberg.
The positive-emotion intervention does not require a licensed therapist and can be widely implemented, making it accessible and affordable for busy caregivers.
The paper will be published May 2 in Health Psychology.
"Nationally we are having a huge increase in informal caregivers," Moskowitz said. "People are living longer with dementias like Alzheimer's disease, and their long-term care is falling to family members and friends. This intervention is one way we can help reduce the stress and burden and enable them to provide better care."
Most current approaches to helping caregivers focus on education about dementia or problem solving around challenging behaviors but haven't specifically addressed reducing the emotional burden of providing care.
The intervention designed by Moskowitz and colleagues included eight skills that evidence shows increase positive emotions. They include noticing and capitalizing on positive events, gratitude, mindfulness, positive reappraisal, personal strengths, attainable goals and acts of kindness. (More details below.)
Moskowitz wasn't sure how many caregivers would be able to complete the program because "they are such a stressed, burdened group. But they were engaged and committed, which speaks to how much they need programs like this," she said.
Currently there are 5.5 million people in the United States diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, which could increase to 16 million by 2050. The average life expectancy post diagnosis is eight to 10 years, although some people live as long as 20 years.