Rice University: Caring for loved ones with dementia is stressful. Rice researchers aim to help

Providing care for people with dementia is a physically demanding and emotionally taxing job that often falls upon loved ones, whose own health can suffer as a result.

A new, five-year study funded by the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute on Aging and led by Rice University psychologist Bryan Denny will focus on designing, delivering and testing interventions that can help alleviate stress and improve overall health for family caregivers by helping them regulate their emotions.

Denny said that while previous research in this area has led to successful interventions, existing psychotherapies are not always accessible.

“Oftentimes, individuals have to meet with a clinician many times for up to six months or more,” he said. “In addition to the time constraints many caregivers face, this care can also be very expensive and is often not covered by insurance.”

Denny and his team will focus specifically on training participants in cognitive reappraisal , which involves thinking about an emotional trigger in a different way. The interventions will be delivered via smartphone.

“Reappraisal is a particularly promising emotion-regulation strategy that we think is well-suited for high intensity, negative situations, like providing care for somebody with dementia,” Denny said. “These are situations that have a high probability of recurrence. One promising way to use reappraisal is through psychological distancing , which teaches individuals to regulate their emotions not by disconnecting, but by engaging with the situation in a more mindful, calm and rational way.”

In one exercise, caregivers will engage with photos of events they might experience, then learn to observe and articulate what is happening. Denny said this exercise is often helpful in high-intensity, negative situations such as those caregivers are likely to face.

Denny and his team will also track health data of the caregivers with a smartphone app that measures heart rate variability, which is linked to stress. People with high heart rate variability are typically better equipped at managing stress than those with low heart rate variability, which is linked to an increased risk for cardiac events, including death.

“The ultimate goal is to gauge the success of these different interventions that may result in positive changes in how these caregivers feel as well as their overall mental and physical health,” Denny said.

Denny and his fellow researchers will also evaluate the mental and physical health of those being cared for to see if they experience any positive health benefits from their caregivers’ emotion-regulation training.

Denny’s co-investigators are Chris Fagundes and Fred Oswald of Rice’s Department of Psychological Sciences and Mark Kunik and Jennifer Stinson from Baylor College of Medicine.