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Caregiving in black and white

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Religious faith often helps black caregivers reduce stress and develop a positive feeling while caring for family members, studies find. But faith doesn't seem to help white caregivers.

In several early studies with fairly small samples of caregivers it was reported that black caregivers experienced more benefits than white caregivers. Other evidence has indicated that caregivers of both races with lower levels of education experience more benefits than caregivers with higher levels of education.

Why may there be a race difference in benefits from caring for patients with Alzheimer's disease? Dr. Lucinda Lee Roff of the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa and her associates recently attempted to answer this question with large samples of black and white caregivers.

The researchers were especially interested in confirming a trend found in earlier studies indicating that a race difference in faith or spirituality mediated the race difference in the amount of benefits received from caregiving. In the earlier studies the greater religiosity of black caregivers seemed to be responsible for the racial disparity in benefits. The researchers also investigated the possibility that race differences in feelings of being bothered by the behavior of their patients would contribute to race differences in the amount of benefits.

The participants were 275 black caregivers (average age 58) and 343 white caregivers (average age 66). The two groups each had about 12 years of formal education. Still, blacks scored higher when asked whether providing care "has made me feel useful" and "enabled me to appreciate life more."

Three items rated the importance of religious faith and spirituality. Black caregivers scored significantly higher on religiosity than white caregivers. In addition, the higher religiosity scores accounted for much of the race difference in benefits favoring the black caregivers.

Also, black caregivers were significantly less upset by a patient's difficult behavior than were white caregivers.

The implication is that religious interventions to help caregivers may increase benefits received by many black caregivers but are unlikely to affect many white caregivers.

A separate survey by researchers at the University of Southern California revealed that a third of the families involved in caregiving reported more positive changes than negative changes in their lives.

Dr. Donald H. Kausler, emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is author of "The Graying of America: An Encyclopedia of Aging, Health, Mind, and Behavior." He may be reached by e-mail at dkausler2@aol.com.