Grad student receives grant to explore stress relief for caregivers

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- When she wasn't attending high school, Amanda Leggett spent much of her time working as a waitress at an assisted living facility in her hometown of Huntsville, Ala. There she encountered people with sweet, sincere grandmotherly personalities and jovial, jesting grandfatherly personalities, but she also met people with grumpy, reclusive and sad personalities.

"I noticed a lot of residents exhibiting depressed moods, hopelessness and apathy," she said. "I remember one resident, in particular. The nurses had to go to her room many times each night to get her to come down to dinner. She would finally come in and choose a table by herself. In my communications with her I could tell she was very sad and lonely, and not enjoying life at the assisted living facility."

Leggett said that it was these interactions that motivated her to study psychology with an emphasis on adult development and aging at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Now, as a doctoral student in the Penn State Department of Human Development and Family Studies, she is examining depression among caregivers of older adults who have dementia and attend an adult day care program several days a week.

To conduct this work, Leggett recently received a 2012 Beth Meyer-Arnold Dissertation Fellowship from the National Adult Day Services Association (NADSA). As a fellow, she will receive $5,000 to support her studies, as well as mentoring and support from members of the NADSA Research Committee. She will be expected to present her research findings at a NADSA conference in the future.

"When I found out I had won the award, I felt incredibly grateful to my adviser, Steven Zarit, who encouraged me to apply for the award and helped me develop my proposal," Leggett said. "I also felt very thankful to the research committee at NADSA for recognizing the value of my study and encouraging this line of research. I’m very humbled and honored."

For her dissertation, Leggett is particularly interested in examining the effectiveness of adult day services (ADS) in influencing the mental health of family caregivers.

"Family members who care for dementia patients are susceptible to experiencing high levels of stress," said Steven Zarit, professor and head of the Department of Human Development and Family Studies. "One way of alleviating that stress is through the use of an adult day care center, which allows them a predictable break from caregiving responsibilities."

According to Zarit, not only do caregivers benefit from using such services, but dementia patients also gain from the break. He and his colleagues have shown that dementia patients who attend adult day care centers have fewer behavior problems and sleep better at night.

In her study, Leggett is examining the data collected by Zarit in his Daily Stress and Health Study, which looks at family caregivers of people with dementia who attend ADS at least twice a week. In the study, 172 caregivers filled out information in a diary for eight consecutive days regarding their daily experiences and stressors. Zarit and his colleagues collected five saliva samples each day in order to determine the amount of the stress hormone, cortisol.

"Having access to data from this innovative study allows me to explore levels of depression in family caregivers in relation to cortisol levels," said Leggett. "I think it's an incredible opportunity to be a part of cutting-edge research relating to my research interests."

In particular, Legget is examining the association between cortisol and ADS usage on caregivers' levels of depression and anger.

"We hypothesize that ADS usage will be associated with more normal cortisol patterns and reduced levels of depression and anger among caregivers," she said. "Caregivers' levels of depression and feelings of anger can impact their mental health and the care they provide to their relatives. However, ADS may provide caregivers’ reprieve from managing behavior problems and care responsibilities and, thereby, help to reduce their negative emotions and improve the care they are providing their relatives. I suspect the results of this study will demonstrate the effectiveness of ADS as an intervention."


Last Updated October 16, 2012