Many studies have shown that family caregivers are at greater risk for a variety of poor health outcomes due to the stressful nature of caregiving. One attempt to reduce caregiver stress is through respite services such as adult day services that provide caregivers a break. A recent study looked at the impact of respite services on caregivers of individuals with dementia by measuring the caregivers’ levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
The researchers found that individual caregivers who showed cortisol patterns associated with being “burned out” on days with no adult day services, were also showing cortisol responses that were much more normal on the days that they had access to adult day services. The days when respite services were available restored normal cortisol functions from patterns that research has associated with high chronic stress, but these benefits did not extend to those days in which the caregivers provided most or all of the dementia care themselves. However, even though these responses were limited to days with adult day services, the researchers still categorized such days as “providing an opportunity for physiological recovery, which ultimately can improve health outcomes.”
One interesting aspect of these findings was that the improved cortisol patterns began before dropping off the care recipient at adult day services. This suggests that just the anticipation of relief and receiving assistance was providing stress relief to these individuals.
In addition to the biological benefits of adult day services, the caregivers with adult day services reported fewer care-related stresses and more positive experiences overall, providing confirmation that these biological responses are connected with more positive subjective experiences on days with caregiving relief.
These findings provide direct biological evidence of the benefits of respite care for caregivers who are at risk of negative health outcomes associated with the act of caregiving. While such respite does not erase the stressful effects of days without adult day services, it allows caregivers’ stress hormone systems time to recover, which has been shown to reduce risks associated with unhealthy chronic cortisol patterns.