A recent study suggests that healthcare professionals and policymakers should expand their focus on supporting the emotional well-being of individuals whose spouses have dementia, especially in the years leading up to their partners’ deaths. The clinical investigation, published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, indicates that these caregivers experience heightened levels of psychological distress compared to those whose partners have normal cognitive function.

The study examined data from more than 2,000 married couples, focusing on spouses aged 50 and older. It tracked their experiences of loneliness, depression, life satisfaction and social isolation two years before and after their partners’ deaths. The findings revealed that about one-fifth (21%) of spouses caring for partners with dementia reported feelings of loneliness before their partners’ deaths, more than double the rate (8%) for those with cognitively healthy partners. Similarly, nearly one-third (31%) of dementia caregivers experienced depressive symptoms, compared to about one-fifth (20%) of those with cognitively healthy spouses.

After the partner’s death, the levels of loneliness and depression were similar across all groups, regardless of the deceased partner’s cognitive status. This suggests that the period before the loss is particularly challenging for those caring for a spouse with dementia. Furthermore, about two-thirds (64%) of these spouses reported lower life satisfaction compared to nearly three-quarters (74%) of those with cognitively healthy partners. However, the study found no significant difference in social isolation levels among the groups.

The study’s participants were predominantly women (66%), with an average age of 73. About a quarter (24%) were married to individuals with cognitive impairment, and nearly one-fifth (19%) to those with dementia. These findings underscore the importance of providing targeted psychosocial support to dementia caregivers, focusing on the pre-bereavement period when their emotional burden is highest.