June 10, 2008
Stress and isolation are hallmarks of caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease, an all-consuming process that has been described as requiring a “36-hour day.” A new Internet-based study from the University of Iowa School of Nursing is aiming to determine whether expressing thoughts and feelings about home care can help to ease the stress of caregiving.
In the study, family members who care for someone with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia and memory loss will be asked to write about their caregiving roles for 20 minutes three times a week. Good writing, grammar or spelling is not required. Rather, the researchers seek to get people to express their thoughts and emotions related to caregiving. It is the act of writing and getting deep thoughts and emotions down on paper that is important, they say, and not the actual prose style or choice of words.
Participants may write in their homes or wherever they have access to a computer that is most convenient to them.
To measure the effect of the writing on reducing stress, study participants also will be asked to complete five questionnaires to assess stress levels and coping skills. Howard Butcher, Ph.D., associate professor of nursing and the study leader, will evaluate whether expressing stress and other emotions in writing is a helpful way to deal with the often difficult emotions of caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease.
Earlier studies suggest that keeping a journal and expressing feelings in words can ease the stress of traumatic situations like job loss, physical abuse, natural disasters and death of a spouse. It may also boost physical and psychological well-being. Keeping a journal has long been maintained as a useful way to ease stress and help make sense of difficult, even overwhelming situations.
Several months ago, a report in the cancer journal The Oncologist found that expressive writing may ease the stress of coping with a cancer diagnosis. More than half of the patients who wrote briefly about how cancer has changed their life while in the waiting room of their oncologists’ office reported that it changed the way they felt about the trauma of what they were going through. The positive effects were maintained weeks later.
This study will look at the effects of expressive writing on those caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease. Previous research by Dr. Butcher has shown that this type of writing promotes psychological and physiological health benefits after just three 20-minute writing sessions. The studies have shown that writing helps trauma survivors find meaning in their life circumstances. This cognitive process can result in physiological changes in the autonomic and immune system associated with stress reduction and successful coping.
University of Iowa Press Office