Alzheimer’s is a devastating diagnosis, but the patient is not the only one who needs to worry about their health: Studies show that 40 percent of caregivers die of stress-related illness before their loved one with Alzheimer’s. Compared to people without a loved one with a serious illness, caregivers experiencing strain have a 63 percent higher rate of mortality.
That’s where happiness training can help. A new way of coping with stress and focusing on positive emotions reduced anxiety and depression after just six weeks, according to a study published in Health Psychology. The study, conducted by researchers at Northwestern University School of Medicine, found that caregivers who participated in the training also had better physical health and felt more positive about their caregiving role.
“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 best part: Caregivers, who are often strapped for time and money in the face of an expensive, time-consuming task, do not need to visit a specialist in order to reap the benefits of the training. There are eight skills caregivers can focus on to ease their anxiety and the physical effects of long-term stress.
1. Recognizing a positive event each day
2. Savoring that positive event and logging it in a journal or telling someone about it
3. Starting a daily gratitude journal
4. Listing a personal strength each day and noting how you used this strength recently
5. Setting an attainable goal each day and noting your progress
6. Reporting a relatively minor stressor each day, then listing ways in which the event can be positively reappraised or reframed
7. Understanding small acts of kindness can have a big impact on positive emotion and practicing a small act of kindness each day
8. Practicing mindfulness through paying attention to daily experiences and with a daily 10-minute breathing exercise, concentrating on the breath
The caregivers’ participation and commitment to the program surprised even the study authors. “They are such a stressed, burdened group. But they were engaged and committed, which speaks to how much they need programs like this,” said Moskowitz.
For the study, 170 caregivers to people with dementia were assigned to the control group, which required them to fill out a daily questionnaire about their emotions, or to a group that learned to focus on positivity—things like keeping a gratitude journal were on the docket. The skills were taught via webcast in order to reach people in remote areas. The six-week program included homework like going out and practicing acts of kindness.
When the study came to a close, the positive skill group had a 7 percent greater drop in depression and a 9 percent greater drop in anxiety compared to the group that filled out daily surveys. Before the training, the intervention group displayed moderate symptoms of depression compared to the population as a whole. By the end, they were within the normal range.
One participant wrote, “The LEAF study and the techniques I learned by participating in it have brought about a serenity and calmness to my life and to that of my husband. We have both benefitted from my changed attitude.”
Another commented, “Doing this study helped me look at my life, not as a big neon sign that says, ‘DEMENTIA’ in front of me, but little bitty things like, ‘We’re having a meal with L’s sister, and we’ll have a great visit.’ I’m seeing the trees are green, the wind is blowing. Yeah, dementia is out there, but I’ve kind of unplugged the neon sign and scaled down the size of the letters.”
Next, Moskowitz plans to start a new study that features a self-guided version of the intervention that can be accessed online. If it’s effective, her hope is to make it widely available.
“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.”