In my family, Thanksgiving meant partaking in the Bechdel family tradition of piling in the car to go to one of my grandmothers houses. It was about a three hour journey across the often snowy, desolate western NY landscape to the great metropolis of Oil City Pennsylvania. As if this three hour trek where I was sentenced to the back seat with my uninteresting, often complaining younger sibling wasn’t bad enough, when we got there at least one or two of us would have to get into my grandmother’s car and drive across town to pick up my great-grandmother to join us for the family dinner. If there was ever a mantra for my 11th year of life it would be my great grandmothers’ voice emanating from the front of the car, asking determinately; “Who’s in the backseat Joyce?”. Unable to turn and look over the front passenger car seat, she would repeat her question about every four to five minutes until we reached our destination.

At this time of year I am reminded that my education of dementia in the elderly, and specifically Alzheimer’s afflicted, began early in my life. When my great-grandmother was diagnosed with this debilitating illness in her late 80’s, it became clear to me the suffering which was both hers and her daughter’s, my grandmother, who was her primary care-giver during this most difficult last chapter in my great-grandmother’s life.

On Tuesday there was an article published on the CBC News website titled “Counseling Helps Dementia Patients and Caregivers Alike”, which discussed two studies done on the effects of counseling for dementia patients and their caregivers. Both studies revolved around the belief that both patient and caregiver would benefit from problem solving interventions by a third party counselor. The motivation to complete the first study is best described by Richard Schulz, professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh school of Medicine, who said “We were motivated by the fact that we have a lot of evidence that dementia caregivers have a lot of problems such as a high level of stress, depression and anxiety, and are more prone to becoming physically ill themselves,”

Schulz’s study found positive results among all racial groups represented in the study whom were given counseling, although Hispanics and whites were seen to have improvements in all areas of life, regardless of caregiver relation. However, in the African-American group results showed there was more benefit to counseling when the caregiver was a spouse as opposed to other caregiver/patient relationships.

Overall, Schulz’s study showed more improvement in the groups that received regular counseling as opposed to the control group which received only a packet of dementia educational materials and two brief check-ups by phone. The study used indicators such as symptoms of depression, ability to care for oneself, social supports and problems handling the dementia patient, which were assessed prior to the study and then once again after the study was over. Results from this study are as follows;

Among the supported group, 45 percent of Hispanics, 40 percent of whites, and 29 percent of blacks displayed quality of life boosts – compared with 7 percent, 13 percent and 11 percent, respectively, among the non-supported group

In the second study of similar design which is mentioned in this article, patients reported receiving a better quality of care if in the counseled group, but the caregivers did not report improvement in their own health due to the counseling intervention.

Does Counseling have a positive impact on both dementia patients and caregiver?

Both of these studies present compelling results and of course it’s never true that one kind of treatment works best for all those afflicted with any sort of mental illness. However, that being said, if you are ever saddled with the responsibility of taking care of a loved one with dementia, wouldn’t you take any help you could get? I know I would. I think my grandmother would have too.

Today I am dedicating my blog entry to my grandmothers, it is through their strength and persistence during this time that I was able to learn both empathy and humility, and for this I am thankful to them both.