MS Takes a Toll on Caregivers, Too, Especially on Their Mental Health

Patricia Silva, PhD avatar

by Patricia Silva, PhD |

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Caregivers of MS patients

Caregivers of people with multiple sclerosis (MS) are often burdened by fatigue and depression, even anger, all of which can unwittingly reduce the quality of care given — although they remain quite empathetic, according to a study. The research team at the University of Manitoba in Canada suggested that tending to the needs of people caring for MS patients would  aid both the caregiver and the patient.

The study, Examining the Relationship Between Family Caregivers’ Emotional States and Ability to Empathize with Patients with Multiple Sclerosis, published in the International Journal of MS Care. highlights that support to caregivers might require education, treatment of mood problems, access to respite care, and other interventions.

Many MS patients stay at home also when their disease progresses to more advanced stages, being dependent upon family members. Earlier research has shown that such arrangements often take its toll on the psychological health of those members entrusted with caring for patients.

Empathy is a key ingredient of good quality care, and it is easy to envision that when feelings of empathy diminish, the quality of care does as well — a notion also supported by research.

To better understand the interactions between caregivers’ psychological health, empathy, and the disease status of patients, the researchers enrolled 50 caregivers, of whom 46 percent were women. Most people providing care in the home were spouses, on average 60.9 years of age, with patients of a similar age.

Nearly one-third showed signs of a negative impact on their mental health, scoring high or very high on a questionnaire measuring various mood-related behaviors. Fatigue was the most commonly noted negative feeling, present in 42 percent of the caregivers, with anger or hostility coming up next, reported by 20 percent.

Caregivers also reported feelings of depression or dejection (14 percent), followed by tension or anxiety, and vigor.

Researchers did not find any link between the caregiver’s mood and behaviors related to empathy, measured by a questionnaire focusing on empathic responses toward the patient. Also, empathy seemed unaffected by the patient’s functional limitations or cognitive state.

The study did not directly assess the level of patient disability, but caregivers who reported more mood problems often took care of people whom they assessed as having greater functional problems. In contrast, cognitive symptoms among patients were not linked to mental stress in caregivers.

Although the study was small, and took only caregivers’ views into account, findings indicated that clinicians should encourage family caregivers to be aware of the psychological stresses they might experience, so that at-home care of MS patients can be optimized. The researchers believe that the needs of caregivers as well patients should be assessed by the clinician.

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