Six years ago, Sylwia Halas had a decision to make. Her 62 year old mother had been diagnosed with dementia two years previously, lived four hours away and had recently lost her spouse. It was neither practical nor safe for her mother to live alone.
Difficult decisions usually emerge from a struggle between intuition and logic. We assume most conscious decisions are made by analyzing a problem and choosing a rational solution. Intuition however, operates far more nimbly than does logic and may, in fact, drive the majority of personal decisions we make each day.
In Ms. Halas’ case, representing logic was a limited view of what was in front of her at a relatively early stage of her mother’s illness. To predict what was to follow, or the toll it might take, would require knowledge and experience she hadn’t yet acquired. Intuitively, a mother-child relationship spanning four decades powerfully stoked the primal need to fulfill her filial duty: to give back. Still, when Ms. Halas and her spouse chose to take her mother into their home, there was no hint of irony, no clue that the very driver behind the decision to provide care—the relationship—was to become its most prominent casualty.
Dr. Joel Sadavoy, a geriatric psychiatrist, is Director of the Cyril & Dorothy, Joel & Jill Reitman Centre for Alzheimer’s Support and Training at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital. In 2009, the Centre launched the CARERS Program (Coaching, Advocacy, Respite, Education, Relationship and Simulation), a series of interactive workshops designed to address the needs of family caregivers providing care at home to individuals with dementia.
“It was clear when we started,” says Dr. Sadavoy, “that dementia is a unique illness…that produces a need for gradually increasing physical care, but takes out of the relationship the very fabric that created the relationship in the first place.”
What is it like for an adult child, having accumulated decades of shared, experiential markers, a vast network of emotional touch points connecting parent and child, when slowly, or suddenly, these relational anchors lose their purchase? “I think that adds a huge layer of complexity,” explains Ms. Halas. “You are striving to sustain a relationship that doesn’t exist anymore. My mom has lost her ability to communicate. None of the customary rewards are available from a person who is no longer who they used to be for you.”
Unfortunately, in many cases, particularly those involving adult children caring for parents with dementia, theirs is not the only relationship in jeopardy. Early on, a psychogeriatrician had warned Ms. Halas that her primary responsibility was to her family. “You think, yes of course,” she says, “but find over time that you do put your parent ahead of the family as you try to keep up with a disease that consumes you and ultimately, dramatically changes your relationship with your spouse and children.”
Ms. Halas came to a point where she felt she was losing control. Her spouse complained she was no longer there for her family, too busy planning several days ahead to inhabit the moment. She felt helpless. “You argue with your spouse and yell at your kids, then your spouse yells at you for yelling at the kids and you realize this can’t go on.”
According to Dr. Sadavoy, caring for someone with a physical illness requires some degree of sacrifice by the caregiver, but there is emotional reciprocity via the ongoing relationship. In dementia, that sharing of life is destroyed by the disease. “The caregiver is not only giving of themselves,” he says, “but doing so in isolation. Dementia is an increasingly isolating disease for the caregiver, not at the beginning but it is a progressive inevitability.”
747,000 Canadians are living with dementia. That is 1 in 11 people over the age of 65, 97% of whom are estimated to have at least one caregiver, likely a family member. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia. It was first identified by Dr. Alois Alzheimer in 1906. He cited “plaques” and “tangles” as two primary features of a disease that causes brain cells to degenerate and die, and leads to progressive changes in functioning and behaviour.
According to a 2013 paper on the CARERS program in the World Journal of Psychiatry, carers, usually spouses or adult children, ‘enter the caregiving role…with little knowledge of and few skills to deal with dementia.’ Not surprisingly, it is the behavioural and psychological symptoms that pose the greatest challenge for the caregiver, sometimes referred to as the second patient due to the enormity of the burden she or he assumes. Adding social and financial hardship to the mix further serves to impair carers’ problem-solving ability and reduce their caregiving capacity.
When Dr. Sadavoy and his colleagues originally conceived the CARERS Program, intervention models had generally not taken a comprehensive view of caregiving. Other than providing some education, there was a narrow focus on practical, task-oriented activities, typical of looking after someone who is physically impaired. Given the progressive debilitation of the care recipient, in tandem with the growing isolation of the caregiver, it became evident that a complex intervention process was necessary.
Studies showed that interventions developed from cognitive behavioural theory (CBT), which aims to help people change how they think ('cognitive') and what they do ('behaviour'), appeared effective. Instead of focusing on the causes of distress in the past, it looks for ways to improve the person's current situation. Derived from CBT principles, problem-solving therapy (PST) is a structured intervention which addresses a practical goal of the program: to help caregivers learn the core skill of understanding how to put their feelings aside. This means not having to win the argument, learning how to avoid making the issue the core focus, and shifting attention instead to the comfort and need of the care recipient.
The CARERS program identified 3 pillars of need: 1) Managing the instrumental, practical, day-to-day issues such as finances, personal care and maintaining a safe environment. 2) Addressing the caregiver’s lack of skill and experience; essential because of the professional level of skill required to deal with the marked changes in personality and behaviour. 3) addressing the emotional complexity of the caregiving role. “If the emotional capacity is not present, the whole thing falls apart,” Dr. Sadavoy emphasizes. “Without the emotional strength to utilize their skills and strategies, caregivers will fail; either they will get sick, emotionally disturbed with depression or anxiety, or break down physically.”
The program is conducted as a series of 10 weekly workshops with 5 caregivers in each group. There are 2 health professionals trained as group leaders and a standardized patient whose role is to engage with each caregiver as she or he describes problematic or painful encounters with a parent or spouse. Through question and observation, the standardized patient attempts to simulate the interaction by assuming the role of the dementia patient and enacting those problematic situations with the caregiver. The group leaders provide expert coaching to help the caregiver address both practical and emotional issues inherent in their daily experiences with the care recipient.
The first 4 sessions utilize Problem Solving Therapy (PST) to help caregivers control emotions by teaching them to think in a formal, problem solving way. This is followed by 6 weeks of simulation training. Group members may then attend a monthly maintenance program which lasts for a year.
For Ms. Halas, who recently completed the 10 week workshop, the program has served a practical purpose. “You learn a lot about dementia in general and how to problem solve things you have to deal with on a daily basis.” Although she’d had difficulty discussing the effects of caregiving on her family and professional life with friends, the safety and security of the workshop provided the perfect outlet. “These are people who understand what it’s like,” she says. “They know the feeling of too much to do in one day. They don’t need any background information to talk about things there wasn’t space to talk about before.”
The practical and personal benefit Ms. Halas’ derived from the CARERS program is not unique. Results of the study published in the World Journal of Psychiatry indicate that it was generally effective in ‘improving caregiver competence, stress coping ability and mental well-being’.
Expanding the program is underway on a number of fronts. Community Care Access Centres (CCAC) coordinate and deliver regional health care services across Ontario. Problem Solving Therapy (PST) Training was provided for close to 200 Toronto Central CCAC Care Coordinators working in the home. Both clinical and statistical results of this initiative were strong in all measured parameters.
A suite of tools and a contact system have been developed to help 250 primary care physicians in Toronto deal with dementia in their practices and link them to resources to help both caregiver and care recipient.
The Federal Government has funded the Centre in support of a 5 year program to help caregivers employed in the Canadian workforce provide care at home. The Working CARERS program needed a vehicle through which to adapt the intensive, face to face therapeutic practices to the workplace. Ceridian, a provider of Employee Assistance Programs to corporate clients, has partnered with the Reitman Centre for this purpose. The CARERS program trains health care professionals hired by Ceridian to provide group interventions in the workplace using the program model. A formal research study will assess the impact of the program on workplace performance.
It is believed that the CARERS model is the first of its kind ‘to make systematic use of standardized patients trained to play the role of persons with dementia for hands-on training of informal carers…’  The training of standardized patients in the simulation roles has become a separate area unto itself with the launch of a Calgary initiative using a protocol that will help create a pool of people able to perform this challenging work.
While there are drugs that may temporarily improve symptoms, there is no cure for dementia and no treatment that stops its progression. Although growth in research dollars has been tepid and pales in comparison to funding for cancer research, the tide may slowly be turning. The British government recently committed to increasing its research funding by 25% and has pledged to find a cure for dementia by 2025. Australia has earmarked an additional $200 million for dementia research over the next five years. Here at home, the Alzheimer Society of Canada is calling for a National Dementia Plan, pointing out that we lag behind countries such as the United States, France, Australia and the UK which already have plans in place.
Dementia will continue to plague mankind for years and possibly decades to come. The physical and psychological toll will cause up to 75 per cent of family caregivers to develop psychological illnesses. Fortunately for Sylwia Halas, that threat has been mitigated through her participation in the CARERS program. Reflecting on the arduous journey she and her family have undertaken and the ambivalence over some of the choices made along the way, there is one decision which by virtue of hindsight, she would like to amend. “I only wish I had got into this program a year ago.”
For more information on the CARERS Program, please select the following:
 Improving caregiving competence, stress coping, and mental well-being in informal dementia carers, WJP, 9/22/2013
 Improving caregiving competence, stress coping, and mental well-being in informal dementia carers, WJP, 9/22/2013
 World Alzheimer Report 2012, A public health priority. (2012). World Health Organization (WHO)