Some 50% of carers of the elderly are over 60


MORE THAN half of the carers of elderly people with dementia or other mental health illnesses are aged 60 or over, new research shows.

The study found that more than 17 per cent of those who are looking after elderly relatives who are mentally ill suffer from undiagnosed depression.

The research, carried out by the Psychiatry of Old Age Service attached to the Community Mental Health Team in Sligo, found that the age span of carers looking after elderly relatives ranged from 20 to 93 years. Just over half of the carers were aged 60-80.

The findings, which were unveiled at a multidisciplinary research conference at Sligo General Hospital, showed that isolation and depression were major issues for carers and that many were unaware of the supports available to them from statutory and voluntary groups.

Consultant psychiatrist Dr Geraldine McCarthy said it became very obvious to the mental health team that if you do not acknowledge the difficulties of the carers, you cannot meet the needs of the patients. Carers permitted the majority of elderly people to stay at home which was where they wanted to be.

But Dr McCarthy warned that the problems carers faced had a huge impact on their ability to cope. Their dedication was "glaringly obvious" and she and her colleagues regularly saw two people coming to the clinic, one of them beautifully groomed and the other stressed out and obviously too busy to worry about their appearance.

"The immaculately dressed one will be the patient and the other the carer," she explained.

Dr McCarthy said the number of people with dementia was expected to treble by 2050 and that her team was dealing with 500 new cases every year. She said other family members could provide crucial support and things like a weekly phone call or a sibling coming home from America for even one week every year "really does matter".

Local carer development officer Siobhain McEniff, who was also involved in the research project, said that while 13 per cent of the 53 carers included in this report said they had no unmet health needs, over half of them highlighted sleep disturbance as an ongoing issue.

"This suggests that they do not realise that sleep deprivation can seriously affect their health and that they believe that doing without sleep is part of the role of carer," said Ms McEniff. She said that many of the carers did not realise that there were practical supports available such as cash grants from the HSE to pay for night- time care, or sensory mats which trigger an alarm if an old person gets out of bed.

A profile of the carer group showed that 84 per cent were female and 16 per cent male; 45 per cent were the spouse of the patient; 34 per cent were daughters; 7 per cent sons; 4 per cent siblings; and 14 per cent were none of the above. Of the patient group involved,just over half were men, the average age was 78.5, while 57 per cent were suffering from dementia and 38 per cent from depression.

The researchers found that the longer the period of caring continued, the more isolated carers tended to become with many adopting the role of carer around the clock without availing of help from family or caring agencies and voluntary groups.

Almost seven out of 10 said their caring duties took up more than 43 hours a week.