Individuals with Alzheimer’s and Caregivers Could Benefit from Couples Therapy

Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is the most common cause of dementia among older adults. It is estimated that as many as 5.1 million Americans suffer from the condition and, as the populace ages, that number is expected to increase.

With no effective treatment or prevention, Alzheimer’s disease is often referred to as “the funeral that never ends,” so quality of care is of great concern both for the person suffering from the disease and their family caregiver. But existing interventions to improve home-based care often isolate the needs of the person with dementia from the needs of the caregiver, an approach that is frequently unsuccessful.

A recent study led by Yale School of Pubic Health evaluated how individuals with Alzheimer’s disease and their spousal caregivers regulate emotions and maintain feelings of security as they struggle with the illness. Individuals with AD were more likely to exhibit physical and psychological symptoms when both partners were anxiously attached, a tendency to feel anxious regarding possible rejection in close relationships. In addition, when a caregiver was avoidantly attached, meaning they tend to avoid close relationships and dependence on others, the individual suffering from Alzheimer’s disease exhibited additional symptoms.

“Inconsistent or unresponsive caregiving may cause the person with Alzheimer’s to feel uncomfortable with their partner and less able to regulate emotions, exacerbating physical symptoms,” says Joan Monin, Ph.D., the study’s lead author and assistant professor in the Social and Behavioral Sciences division of the Department of Chronic Disease Epidemiology.

The findings could lead to interventions such as emotion-focused couple’s therapy, which address issues central to the dementia experience, such as coping with feelings of emotional separation and anticipation of loss. It can also help clinicians better address the emotional needs of both the individuals with dementia and their caregivers.

Monin’s research examines emotional processes and how they affect health in older adult relationships. Her research combines survey methods and laboratory experiments to understand the mechanisms (e.g., emotional contagion and cardiovascular reactivity) and moderators (gender and individual differences in attachment) involved in these processes. Her current research focuses on understanding how exposure to a loved one’s suffering affects the physical and psychological health of older adult caregivers.

This research was published in the October issue of the Journal of Aging and Mental Health

This article was submitted by Denise L Meyer on February 6, 2013.