Spirituality Can Ease Stress on Alzheimer's Caregivers
My friend, Pam, is a former Catholic nun who decided that she wasn’t truly called to live that life. She left the sisterhood, got her teaching credentials, and found her true calling as an elementary teacher (which is where I met her since I was a student in her first class). Once I had moved to the next grade level, Pam and my parents became great friends. We went to Pam’s wedding to Don (a former priest) and stayed in touch over the past 40 years. And it turns out that our families have faced the same major challenge – Alzheimer’s disease. Turns out that both Mom and Don (who is now in his 60s) were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
Throughout Don’s battle with this disease, Pam (being the great educator) has immersed herself in learning as much as possible about both the disease and caregiving. In the past year, she passed along a doctoral dissertation by D. Allen Novian Jr. that was completed in 2007 that focused on the spirituality in caregivers for spouses diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or similar disorders.
The qualitative study found that the 11 caregivers who were interviewed believed that God (based on their own religious background) assisted them in their caregiving responsibilities. The caregivers also did not ask God allowed dementia to affect a loved one’s life. The caregivers believed that God was guiding them through the difficulties and confusion facing them. Both formal and informal prayer provided strength and peace to caregivers, and had become a significant part of their daily routine since their loved one had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. The caregivers also accepted that they needed to turn over the challenges they faced to God. And – perhaps surprisingly – the caregivers focused not on the negative effects of caregiving, but on the situation’s positive blessings. They looked for reasons to rejoice by seeing the goodness in their lives as opposed to only seeing the bad things created by their caregiving situation. They also believed that they could continue growing in their relationship with God.
Novian suggested that marriage and family therapists may want to learn more about spirituality and then discuss the topic of spirituality with their clients or refer them to someone who could discuss this area. “Spirituality can provide hope and reassurance to caregivers who are engulfed in the stress and despair often associated with Alzheimer’s disease and related diseases (ADRD) caregiving,” he wrote. “The study suggests that spirituality allowed these participants to find meaning in being a spousal ADRD caregiver, and, in turn, the new sense of purpose provided a reason to continue in the role despite the stress and demands of ADRD.”
I’m sure that Pam’s strong religious beliefs have been a solace to her throughout her caregiving experience with Don. And although I wasn’t taking care of a spouse, I found that my own spiritual beliefs grew while taking care of a parent with Alzheimer’s. Because caregiving with Alzheimer’s is such a huge and complex undertaking that doesn’t have easy answers, I believe that Dr. Novian’s research should be considered in developing ways to provide support to Alzheimer’s caregivers.