Alzheimer's Disease: Unraveling the Mystery

Research Findings Benefit Caregivers

older couple on sofaAlthough research on family caregiver support is still in its early days, we have already learned much about the unique aspects of caregivers’ personalities and situations. For example, it is well established that AD caregivers often experience stress, anxiety, depression, and other mental health problems as a result of the continuing and demanding nature of AD care. This chronic stress can have detrimental effects on the physical health of caregivers. The physical and emotional effects of AD caregiving can last a long time, even after the death of the person with AD.

On the other hand, research also has shown that caregiving can have important positive effects, including:

  • A new sense of purpose or meaning in life
  • Fulfillment of a lifelong commitment to a spouse
  • An opportunity to give back to a parent some of what the parent has given to them
  • Renewal of religious faith
  • Closer ties with people through new relationships or stronger existing relationships

Where Are People with Alzheimer’s Disease Cared For?

  • Home
  • Assisted living facilities (those in the early stages)
  • Adult day care centers
  • Nursing homes
  • Special care units

AD caregivers do not all have the same psychological and physical response to caregiving. For example, caregivers who have strong support systems and well-developed coping skills may be able to weather the stresses of caring for a loved one with AD. Others who have few breaks from caregiving responsibilities and/or have preexisting illnesses may be more vulnerable to the physical and emotional stresses associated with dementia care. Caregiver research is beginning to discover effective ways to ease the burden of caregiving. Researchers have learned that:

  • The information and problem-solving needs of caregivers evolve over time as AD progresses. Therefore, support programs should be tailored to the needs of the caregiver at various stages of caregiving. Programs can respond by offering services and information geared to different stages of the disease.
  • Traditions and attitudes about caregiving vary across cultural groups. For example, some researchers have found that African-American caregivers use fewer formal in-home services than do white caretakers. Some populations may find it difficult to publicly admit that a family member has AD and may be reluctant to seek help with caregiving issues. Therefore, programs and services for caregivers must be culturally appropriate and sensitive to factors that positively and negatively influence caregivers’ attitudes and ability to carry out their responsibilities.
  • Use of multiple types of support over an extended period of time helps caregivers. For example, the Resources for Enhancing Alzheimer’s Caregiver Health (REACH) clinical trial showed that caregivers who received 6 months of intensive help with caregiving strategies had significant improvements in overall quality of life. They also had lower rates of clinical depression compared to caregivers who did not participate in the program. The caregiving strategies included information sharing, instruction, role plays, problem-solving, skills training, stress-management techniques, and telephone support groups. Caregivers reported that taking part in REACH helped them feel more confident in working with their loved ones, made life easier for them, improved their caregiving ability, improved the care recipient’s life, and helped them keep their loved one at home.
  • Developing ways to help caregivers become educated about AD, improve flexibility in responding to caregiving demands, and learn a variety of practical strategies can help. Studies are teaching caregivers how to read the emotional and physical cues of the person with AD and to understand the sequence of events that often leads to inappropriate behaviors. They are also helping caregivers respond to the needs of the person with AD in a variety of creative ways, such as maintaining flexibility in the face of many demands, becoming educated about the disease, learning practical strategies, using available resources, involving other family members and friends, and balancing the needs of the person with their own needs.
  • Helping caregivers deal with the complicated issue of whether and when to place a loved one in a nursing home is an important aspect of caregiver support. People with dementia are at much greater risk of nursing home placement than are other older people of the same age. Placing a loved one in a nursing home may relieve some of the burden of caregiving, but it does not necessarily reduce caregiver stress or emotional distress. Moreover, nursing home costs now average more than $70,000 per year.

    One clinical trial tested the effects of an enhanced counseling and support program on nursing home placement and caregiver health. This program for caregivers consisted of six sessions of individual and family counseling, support group participation, and on-demand telephone counseling. Participants in the program were able to delay placement of their loved ones in nursing homes by about 18 months. Researchers attributed the effects of the program to greater tolerance for memory and behavior problems in the person with AD, improved satisfaction with the support provided by family and friends, and fewer symptoms of depression. Moreover, it appears that the extra time at home did not come at the expense of the caregivers’ sense of well-being.

  • Helping caregivers stay physically active has big benefits. Researchers have found that regular moderate exercise is an important stress reliever for caregivers. Exercise helps to reduce blood pressure increases due to stress, improves sleep quality, and reduces psychological distress and depression.

For Information About AD Support Groups

To find out whether an AD support group is operating in your area, contact:


early-stage AD patient meetingFor families and friends who care for a person with AD, talking with others who are going through the same experience can be a vital lifeline. AD support groups provide a place where caregivers can seek respite, express concerns, share experiences, get tips, and receive emotional comfort. NIA-funded Alzheimer’s Disease Centers, the Alzheimer’s Association, and many other organizations sponsor in-person and online AD support groups all around the country.

Improved diagnostic tests and increasing awareness of AD mean that more and more people are now being diagnosed at early stages of AD. People in the early stages often still have good coping skills and are intensely aware of themselves and their symptoms. They also may feel considerable distress, embarrassment, and isolation because of a perceived stigma associated with the disease. As a result, a growing number of people with early-stage AD and their family members are looking for coping strategies, meaningful activities, and mental stimulation. They are eager to educate themselves about AD, share common experiences, and break the potential barriers and isolation caused by their diagnosis. This has led to the formation of early-stage support groups specifically designed to meet their needs.

What Happens Next?

Cover of What Happens Next? publicationIt is a question many people and their families ask when AD is first diagnosed. Members of an early-stage support group at the Northwestern University Alzheimer’s Disease Center in Chicago wrote What Happens Next? to help people with early-stage dementia cope with their feelings and the practical aspects of everyday life.

To view or download a free copy, visit

Some early-stage support groups follow a structured model, with 1- to 2-hour sessions scheduled over 6 to 8 weeks. The sessions are led by a facilitator and discussion topics are determined in advance. Guest speakers provide information and help on specific topics such as legal and financial planning. In some programs, the person with AD and the caregiver meet in separate groups; in others, people with AD and their caregivers are together for part of the session and apart for the remainder.

Other types of early-stage support groups are less structured. Members discuss topics of their own choosing, and the groups meet regularly over an extended time. Members with AD may stay in the group as long as they are able to meaningfully take part in the discussion and activities.

Early-stage support groups are not for everyone. Some people with early AD and their families may not benefit because of family conflict, denial, cognitive impairment, or discomfort with the intimacy of a group experience. However, most participants report positive outcomes, such as a greater sense of control over their lives and feelings that they are not alone. Many participants find early-stage support groups helpful because they instill a spirit of camaraderie, build coping skills, and forge relationships and emotional support that continue to help the person with AD and the caregiver even after the sessions end.

Taking Care of Mom or Dad at a Distance

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Ken Nixon and his grandson use AttentiveCare to check in with Ken’s mother.

Taking care of a parent with AD who lives hundreds of miles away is a real worry facing many adults. “How can we make sure Mom gets the best care possible if we’re not there all the time?” “What can I do to help Dad live at home for as long as possible?”

That was the dilemma facing Ken Nixon and his two brothers in 2001. Their mother lived in an Arkansas farming community and wanted to stay there. Ken and his brothers lived 3 to 5 hours away—close, but not close enough.

With funding from NIA, Ken and his brothers created a multi-purpose, Internet-based system called AttentiveCare that is currently available to others faced with the same long-distance caregiving challenges. Back in 2001, broadband Internet service had just become available in their mother’s community, so the brothers decided to see whether videoconferencing could be a way to keep in touch with her. They installed a computer with a video camera in her home so they could check on her daily, helping fulfill her wish to continue living independently on the family farm while assuring themselves that she was faring well.

“We had a need, and we patched the system together at first,” says Ken. “It exceeded our expectations in being able to keep our mother independent and connected to the family. We could call and have coffee with her every morning, and it got her day started off right. She had something to look forward to every day—one or two of her boys were going to visit.”

After 6 months of using the home-grown system, Nixon decided to develop it to help other caregivers. In 2003, he applied for and received a grant from NIA to refine the AttentiveCare prototype and test its feasibility in providing informal, long-distance care to people with AD.

He later received another grant to evaluate the software, services, and caregiver usage and benefits of the system in a variety of caregiving situations. The participants in this study are distance caregivers of persons with early- to moderate-stage AD who had the AttentiveCare system installed in their own homes and the homes of their family members with AD.

AttentiveCare now features videoconferencing, multimedia reminders to help care recipients function independently, and slide shows to keep care recipients connected with family. The system’s journal and data logging capability also allows family caregivers to maintain and share information about the care recipient’s health and well-being, whether they are across the street or thousands of miles away.


Publication Date: September 2008
Page Last Updated: January 22, 2015

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