Nearly 50 per cent of carers spend all of their waking time looking after their spouse, according to a new study that is the largest investigation of the health of people who care for spouses with dementia ever conducted in Ireland.
Due to be launched today as part of National Carers Week, the study, which examined the health and wellbeing of those who must care for spouses suffering from dementia, found that nearly 15 per cent of those surveyed in the study had given up their jobs to care for their spouse.
The De-Stress study, which was undertaken by Trinity researchers, is the latest in a string of research coming out of the college that investigates dementia and the effects of aging on Ireland’s population. The latest study comes as Trinity has developed a strong specialism in research into the causes and potential treatments of dementia.
It paints a picture of family carers across Ireland in urgent need of help and support. In a press statement, Prof Sabina Brennan, the Director of the Neuro-Enhancement for Independent Lives (NEIL) Memory Research Unit in Trinity, described carers as an “invaluable resource”. “Sadly they are not adequately supported in their role and consequently their health may be affected. If we are serious about supporting people to live well and die in their chosen setting then we need to invest in quality services to support both carers and those being cared for”, she added.
Established in 2011, the Memory Research Unit in Trinity has been collecting data from older adults across Ireland to enhance our understanding of memory and how various aspects of our lives influence memory as we age. Dementia is a growing problem in Ireland and around the world. The number of people with dementia in Ireland is expected to more than double over the next 20 years, from 55,000 today to 113,000 in 2036, with more than 180,000 people in Ireland currently caring for a family member or spouse suffering from the disease.
The study found that depression and anxiety were common among family carers, with around a third of participants in the study facing difficulty with at least one aspect of the caring role, from managing money to shopping or preparing food. The study found that nearly 80 per cent of carers had provided 81 to 100 per cent of the care for their spouse, with this level of care most often provided by women.
The study covers a range of areas, assessing and providing information on the level of the care being provided by spouses in Ireland and the health challenges facing them, as carers. The majority of carers in the study were on prescribed medicines and many had their own chronic health conditions, such as arthritis or diabetes.
While the majority of carers in the study agreed that there were positive aspects of caring, many felt they had little choice but to take up the role to look after a spouse. The study found that carers experience a decline in cognitive functions, such as attention or their ability to plan, over a one-year period – a decline not linked to any disease or genetic predisposition.
“Lack of understanding and fear may keep people from visiting an individual with dementia but I would ask people to call around and have a chat with the carer – even a simple gesture like that could make a difference and lessen the sense of isolation that carers can experience. I would also urge carers to look after themselves – it is sensible and not selfish to look after your own health and make a point of seeking social contact”, Brennan said.
This was echoed by Pat McLoughlin, the CEO of the Alzheimer Society of Ireland. In a press statement, he said: “Carers play an immensely valuable role in understanding and supporting people with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. Our current health and social care system depends largely on family carers who provide the main bulk of care.”
The Trinity study, which will be launched in the Trinity Biomedical Sciences Institute (TBSI) this afternoon, was funded by the Health Research Board and the Alzheimer Society of Ireland.