There are more than 34 million people in the US who care for terminally ill loved ones, but few resources are available to help them navigate the challenges they encounter.
A new study published in the Journal of Palliative Medicine finds that nearly one-quarter of caregivers are moderately or severely depressed and nearly one-third have moderate or severe anxiety. Researchers recommend that health providers remember to treat the whole family, providing ongoing screening to caregivers to identify early signs of depression and anxiety.
“While some sadness and worry are expected components of caring for a dying family member or loved one, clinical depression and anxiety shouldn’t be,” says Debra Parker-Oliver, professor of family and community medicine at the University of Missouri School of Medicine.
“We have a population that is under immense stress and is not being acknowledged. Basic assessment tools should be used to help increase the likelihood of early detection and treatment of depression and anxiety in family caregivers.”
Researchers conducted depression and anxiety assessments with 395 family caregivers and found that 23 percent of caregivers were moderately or severely depressed, and 33 percent of caregivers had moderate or severe anxiety. Further, caregivers demonstrated several risk factors associated with depression and anxiety.
“We found that younger caregivers were more likely to be depressed or anxious,” Parker-Oliver says. “We also found that caregivers who are married and caring for a family member with a diagnosis other than cancer, such as Alzheimer’s disease, had higher levels of depression.”
“We have a population that is under immense stress and is not being acknowledged.”
Many of these simple assessments are not used because of the misconceived notion among health providers that the family caregivers are not their patients, Parker-Oliver says.
“Health providers usually are more focused on the terminally ill patient instead of the entire family. However, in many scenarios, it is a family disease. It’s fair to say they have two patients: the caregiver and the person who is terminally ill.”
Assessment tools for depression and anxiety are widely affordable and have the potential for improved clinical outcomes for family caregivers in need of additional support.
The National Institute of Nursing Research and the National Cancer Institute funded the work.
Source: University of Missouri