Caring for a Loved One with Advanced Cancer: Determinants of Psychological Distress in Family Caregivers

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  • JOURNAL OF PALLIATIVE MEDICINEVolume 9, Number 4, 2006 Mary Ann Liebert, Inc.

    Caring for a Loved One with Advanced Cancer:Determinants of Psychological Distress

    in Family Caregivers



    Background: Family caregivers caring for a patient with terminal cancer may experience sig-nificant psychological distress.

    Objective: The purpose of this study was to determine the extent to which the family care-givers psychological distress is influenced by the patients performance status while takinginto account individual characteristics of caregivers and their unmet needs.

    Methods: Two hundred twelve family caregivers were assigned to three cohorts accordingto the patients performance status, as measured by the Eastern Collaborative Oncology GroupFunctional Scale (ECOGS). Interview information was collected on the services and care pro-vided, as well as on the caregivers characteristics and level of psychological distress.

    Results: Family caregivers psychosocial distress is strongly associated with the patientsterminal disease progress and declined functioning. The level of psychological distress variesfrom 25.2 to 33.5 (p 0.0008) between the groups. Moreover, the percentage of caregivers witha high level of psychological distress varies from 41% to 62%, while this percentage is esti-mated at 19.2% in general population. A high distress index was significantly associated withthe caregivers burden, the patients young age, the patients symptoms, the caregivers youngage and gender, a poor perception of his/her health and dissatisfaction with emotional andtangible support.

    Conclusions: Family caregivers of patients in the advanced stages of cancer experience ahigh level of psychological distress, which increases significantly as the patient loses auton-omy. Health care policies and programs need to be revisited in order to take the reality ofthese patients and their families into account.


    1cole de service social, Universit Laval, Centre de recherche en cancrologie, Universit Laval, Qubec, Canada.2Facult de mdecine, Universit Laval, Qubec, Canada.3Division of Palliative Care, University of Ottawa and Sister of Charity of Ottawa Health Service Partnership, Ot-

    tawa, Ontario, Canada.4Facult de pharmacie, Universit Laval, Psychiatre, Centre hospitalier universitaire de Qubec, Centre de recherche

    en cancrologie, Universit Laval, Centre de recherche Universit Laval-Robert-Giffard, Qubec, Canada.5Centre jeunesse de Qubec, Qubec, Canada.6Unit de mdecine familiale, Hpital Laval, Qubec, Canada.


    BEGINNING IN THE UNITED KINGDOM with thehospice movement and the inspiration of Cicely Saunders1 and Elizabeth Kubler-Ross,2

    palliative care promotes humanization of careand encourages the caring of patients in their nat-ural milieu/environment. This philosophy is mir-rored by the patients desire to stay home as longas possible, if adequate and sufficient care isavailable (Angus Reid Report cited by McWhin-ney et al.3). Furthermore, the palliative caremovement promotes desinstitutionalization in fa-vor of home care. Over the last decade, as com-munity palliative care services become moreavailable, an increasing number of individualswith cancer have chosen to die at home.4,5 Pal-liative care at home is recognized to require thehelp of dedicated caregivers supported by careteams.6 Informal caregivers may experience psy-chological morbidity (anxiety, depression) or bur-den.7 A growing literature suggests that caringfor a terminally ill loved one is a difficult experi-ence that may trigger distress among family care-givers.810 Characteristics of informal caregiversrelated to their psychological distress are age,state of health, relationship to the patient,7,1113

    and sense of competence and personal accom-plishment.9,14,15

    Informal caregiver distress is also related to pa-tients characteristics such as the level of func-tional autonomy, type of cancer, and severity ofsymptoms.7,1623 Other factors may also influencethe psychological distress of family caregivers:the accessibility and availability of homecare,2426 social support,20,2629 place of death,27,30

    and financial burden.10,3133 However, very littleresearch exists that prospectively addresses thefamily caregivers psychological distress whenproviding end-of-life care for a close one.

    The goal of this study was to determine the ex-tent to which the family caregivers psychologicaldistress is influenced by the patients performancestatus while taking into account individual char-acteristics of caregivers and their unmet needs.



    The population under study is defined as thosemembers of a family who fulfil the role of main

    caregivers of a patient during the palliative phaseof patients with cancer in the Qubec City area.These families are supported by a palliative careteam whether the patient lives at home, the hos-pital, or a hospice.

    Two hundred twelve family caregivers of in-dividuals with terminal cancer were recruited inthe Quebec City area to participate in a cross-sec-tional study. This study was approved by theEthics Committee of the Maison Michel-SarrazinHospice. The family caregiver was identified bythe patient themself as the person who was as-suming the main responsibility for overseeing hisor her daily care delivery. Three cohorts wereformed according to the patients performancestatus, as measured according to the Eastern Col-laborative Oncology Group Performance Scale(ECOGPS).34

    The first cohort comprised caregivers whocared for a patient confined to a bed or chair lessthan 50% of waking hours (ECOGPS grade 2); thesecond cohort was made up of caregivers whocared for a patient confined to bed or chair 50%or more of the waking hours, but excluding 100%of the time (ECOGPS grade 3); and finally, thethird cohort included caregivers of completelybedridden patients (ECOGPS grade 4).

    Data collection

    Recruitment was conducted with the same procedures at eight local community service cen-ters (Cente local de services communautaires[CLSC]), at the Maison Michel-Sarrazin Hospice,at ambulatory oncology clinics and at family clin-ics in the greater Quebec City area. Home carenurses, social workers. and family physiciansidentified potential participants and asked thesepersons if they are interested in the study. Thosewho were interested were provided with infor-mation over the telephone by a research assistantwho was always the same person. Participantswere scheduled for an initial interview of ap-proximately 1 hour duration at either the pa-tients or caregivers home, the hospice, the CLSC,or the hospital as soon as possible after verbal in-formed consent. Research interviews were con-ducted by four trained research assistants. Socialand demographic information about the care-giver and the patient were collected. The care-givers psychological distress was evaluated us-ing the Indice de dtresse psychologique de SantQubec (IDPESQ).35,36 This multidimensional in-


  • dex, derived from the Psychiatric Symptoms In-dex,37 measures depression, anxiety, aggressive-ness, and cognitive disorders with a strong in-ternal consistency (Cronbach correlation 0.92).36,37 Data collection included the intensity ofthe patients symptoms according to the Symp-tom Distress Scale (SDS),38 caregivers burden,39

    caregivers perceived state of health, satisfactionof need for help and care, perceived social sup-port from family and friends40 and, perceived fi-nancial burden was also obtained. The HomeCaregivers Need Survey (HCNS), developed byHileman,41 was adapted for the purposes of thisstudy.

    Participants, who cared for a patient with afunctional status estimated at ECOGPS grade 2or 3 during this first interview, were invited to bepart of the second and/or the third cohort. Inthese particular cases, the follow-up was done bythe clinicians in coordination with the researchassistant. New research interviews were sched-uled when the patients functional status declinedto ECOGPS grade 3 or 4. Thus, some family care-givers participated in more than one research in-terview.

    Data analysis

    Results of relevant measures were presentedwith mean and standard deviation for continu-ous variables and with percentages for categori-cal variables. The 2 statistic was used to comparepsychological distress indices of family care-givers and those of the population of the provinceof Quebec. Family caregivers who had indicesequal or greater than the upper quintile value ofthe Quebec population were classified as being insevere distress.37,42

    The existence and strength of correlations orassociations between the family caregivers psy-

    chological distress and the independent variableswere assessed according to the patients loss ofautonomy as follows. Pearsons product-momentcorrelation coefficient was used to assess the re-lationship between the psychological distress andother continuous variables, while the Students ttest was used for analyzing categorical variables.

    At each level of the patients performance sta-tus (ECOGPS grade 2, 3, and 4), multiple regres-sion analyses were performed to identify modelsthat best explained the family caregivers psycho-logical distress. Regression analyses were per-formed using a forward procedure with a level ofsignificance of 0.15. Only those variables that weresignificant at 0.05 were retained. The data wereanalyzed using the statistical package programSAS version 8.2 (SAS Institute Inc., Cary, NC).


    A total of 212 family primary caregivers wereinterviewed. Fifty participated in two interviewsand 7 in three. In other w