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Primary Caregivers Better Able To Cope With Spouse’s Death, University Of Pittsburgh Study Shows

PITTSBURGH, June 26, 2001 — New research from the University of Pittsburgh suggests that individuals who care for their sick spouses cope better when their partner dies than those who take no role in caregiving, and they have a lesser chance of depression, weight loss and poor health.

The study by Richard Schulz, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry, epidemiology and sociology, and his colleagues, is the first study to clearly show that the way married couples cope with the death of a spouse varies depending on how active they were with caring for their partner prior to his or her death. The research was published in today’s Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

“While caregivers can become depressed after the death of their spouse, in many ways the death can actually bring relief from some of the more demanding tasks of caregiving,” said Dr. Schulz. “Death also brings an end to their partner’s suffering and allows them to get back into a more normal routine.”

Partners who have a limited role or no participation in caregiving may take the death harder because it is less expected, said Dr. Schulz. If the deceased spouse had not been ill, the survivor also suffers the loss of an active life partner.

Dr. Schulz’s study shows that non-caregivers have a higher risk for negative health consequences such as weight loss, increased depression and increased medication use and may need more intervention to get through the loss.

According to Dr. Schulz, the study takes on a greater meaning considering that most deaths in the United States today are preceded by an extended period of illness and disability. As the population ages, family members will be called upon to provide varying amounts of support and care to relatives before they die. It also suggests that clinicians and family members need to understand the role of caregiving and how it affects bereavement to help them better meet the needs of the survivor.

“At some point, many of us will become caregivers,” said Dr. Schulz. “During the next 15 to 20 years there will be more people hitting their 70s and 80s than ever before, increasing the burden of care on relatives.”

The researchers followed 819 married men and women ages 66 to 99 for four years. During that time, 129 individuals were widowed. Each of the survivors were classified as non-caregivers, caregivers who reported no strain, or strained caregivers.

Individuals classified as strained caregivers before the death of their spouse tended to cope much better with the death than those who had a less active role. The researchers outlined several reasons: death is more predictable so individuals can better prepare for it; death brings an end to patient suffering as well as an end to demanding caregiving tasks; death is a relief to both patient and caregiver; and, because caregiving demands disrupt normal routines, death enables the former caregiver to return to normal activities.

The shock and disruption surrounding a spouse’s death were the two most likely reasons for increased depression and poorer health in general for those with limited or no caregiving roles.

Other authors of the study are: Scott R. Beach, Ph.D., University of Pittsburgh Center for Social and Urban Research; Bonnie Lind, M.S., department of Biostatistics, University of Washington, Seattle; Lynn M. Martire, Ph.D., Department of Psychiatry, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and University of Pittsburgh Center for Social and Urban Research; Bozena Zdaniuk, Ph.D., University of Pittsburgh Center for Social and Urban Research; Calvin Hirsch, M.D., Division of General Medicine, University of California, Davis Medical Center, Davis, Calif.; Sharon Jackson, Ph.D., Wake Forest School of Medicine, department of public health sciences, section on epidemiology, Winston-Salem, N.C.; and Lynda Burton, Sc.D., Health Services Research and Development Center, Johns Hopkins University, School of Hygiene and Public Health, Baltimore.

Research was supported in part by grants from the National Institute of Mental Health, the National Institute on Aging and the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.

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