UR research center launches with federal grant

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A new University of Rochester Medical Center research center focused on the needs of older individuals who care for partners, relatives and friends suffering from Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia has won a $3.6 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.

A joint effort of UR’s School of Nursing and Department of Psychiatry, the Roybal Center for Social Ties & Aging Research plans to foster cooperation among researchers studying social disconnection among older caregivers. 

The Roybal Center’s co-directors and co-principal investigators on the NIH grant are Kathi Heffner, associate professor of nursing, psychiatry and medicine, and Kimberly Van Orden, associate professor of psychiatry.

While much research has focused on the needs of dementia patients, there has been relatively little formal investigation into the needs of caregivers.

Defined as unpaid providers of care for a spouse, other relative, friend or neighbor, 65 percent of caregivers are women whose average age is 69.4, statistics compiled by the Family Caregiver Alliance show. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, the economic value in 2014 of unpaid care provided by U.S. caregivers of Alzheimer’s patients totaled more than $217 billion. 

Overwhelmed by demanding duties that can seem unending, caregivers can easily fall into social isolation. 

A common scenario as described by the Family Caregiver Alliance finds caregivers cut off from friends continuing with daily routines and feeling alone. Similarly, caregivers who don’t interact with other caregivers often feel that no one understands their situation.  

The NIH grant won by the Roybal Center in part will fund two pilot studies:

■ A study led by Sally Norton, School of Nursing associate dean for research, who along with co-investigator Marsha Wittink, M.D., associate professor of psychology, is focusing on helping caregivers gain an understanding of connectedness, identifying their personal barriers to it, and finding local resources to help them stay connected; and

■ An investigation led by Van Orden that will use psychotherapy as a second-level approach for caregivers who did not successfully engage with the connectedness education alone.     

Will Astor is Rochester Beacon senior writer.

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