The Catholic University of America

October 31, 2007

CUA Doctoral Student Awarded Nearly $100,000 to Study Caregiver Stress

Clinical psychology doctoral candidate Sarah Halpert and Professor James Howard

Sarah Halpert, a clinical psychology doctoral candidate, has received a National Institutes of Health National Research Service Award totaling nearly $100,000 over a three-year period. The fellowship will enable Halpert to continue her research on the effects of stress on the psychological and cognitive well-being of caregivers looking after loved ones with memory problems.

"Very few of our students over the years have received outside awards like this," said psychology Professor James Howard who is working with Halpert on her research. "These awards are very difficult to get."

Halpert chose to come to CUA because Howard and his work in CUA's Cognitive Aging Lab seemed a good fit for her and her research interests.

According to Howard, the majority of care for dementia patients is provided in the home. A caregiver of a person with dementia is effectively thinking for two people. Caregivers, who are often loved ones, react in different ways. Some find the experience more rewarding than others. Halpert's research focuses on how the reaction to caregiving influences a person's cognitive function, i.e., memory.

"Caring for a spouse or parent with progressing dementia is considered to be a chronic stressor," Halpert says.

"Little research has been done to characterize the caregiver population along dimensions such as age, caregiver role (i.e., spouse or child), perceived burden, emotion and cognitive functions. We hope to achieve a greater understanding of how and why caregivers are differentially impacted by their role."

Halpert has located people for the study by contacting local caregiver support groups. She says they are appreciative and encouraged that someone is interested in their struggles and in trying to find ways to make their lives easier.

Her study consists of two parts - a take-home packet of seven clinical self-report measures (e.g., anxiety, depression and stress) and a cognitive battery (test) that is administered over the phone.

"While the psychological and physiological impact of stress on caregivers is well known, we know very little about how stress impacts cognition in this population," Halpert says. "Cognition is extremely important for caregivers as they are often responsible for remembering important information such as medication regimes, doctors' instructions and bill payments."

Halpert hopes her study will "help us to better understand the plight of caregivers, especially its consequences, and how we can best help them by way of interventions, research or more effective care."