Caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease is difficult under any circumstance, but couples with relationships marked by compassionate love fare much better emotionally than others as they deal with the challenges of the disease.
New research led by Joan K. Monin, assistant professor at the Yale School of Public Health, studied 58 people with Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia, as well as their spousal caregivers.
The study found that caregiving situations that were marked by a high degree of compassionate love resulted in the care provider feeling that the many responsibilities associated with Alzheimer’s care were less burdensome and troubling. Importantly, when the person with dementia felt compassion for the caregiver, the caregiver felt less burdened. The study also found some, though not significant, mitigation of depressive symptoms for caregivers when couples shared compassionate love.
The findings, published in The Gerontologist, could be useful in identifying caregivers who will be more resilient and those who are at heightened risk for mental and emotional health issues that often mark caregiving relationships involving Alzheimer’s disease. Also, the study concludes, interventions that enhance compassionate love may benefit caregivers.
“When trying to understand the emotional impact of caring for a loved one with dementia, most studies focus on the caregiver’s perspective only. Our findings highlight the importance of considering both partners’ feelings and how they influence each other, especially at the early stages of dementia. When we do this, we find that the emotional support that the care recipient provides to the caregiver is also very important,” said Monin. “Moving forward, we need more research that examines whether couples interventions to decrease caregiving burden are more effective than interventions that focus on caregivers only.
It is estimated that there are more than 5 million people in the United States alone with Alzheimer’s disease, and the majority of them receive care directly from their spouses, family or friends. Previous studies have correlated the stress and burden associated with Alzheimer’s care with a range of negative physical and mental health effects, especially among spouses.
Compassionate love was defined by the research team as an attitude toward others that emphasizes humanity and feelings that are focused on concern, tenderness and a desire to help others, particularly those who are suffering or in need. The researchers measured compassionate love using a validated self-report scale.
Monin also said that future research should focus on gender differences in the context of spouses caring for their partners with dementia. Data is also needed on cultural differences in compassionate love in caregiving.
Monin collaborated on the study with colleagues from the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University.