The study, which was funded by Dimbleby Cancer Care and Marie Curie and published in the Journal of Pain and Symptom Management, looked at older cohabitees of people who died from cancer, chronic and obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and dementia.
It showed that the new prescriptions for antidepressants rose from 6-8% of carers in the year before the carer’s partner died to 9-13% of carers in the year following bereavement. New prescriptions for hypnotics (sleeping tablets) and anxiolytics (to combat anxiety) also increased in the year after death.
Other health outcomes, such as hypertension and diabetes, had a similar prevalence in the year before and after a partner’s death, but there was a slight increase in the proportion of carers who had at least six consultations in the year following bereavement.
The research also showed that just 6.9% of the cohabitees included in the study were actually listed as carers. It did not, however, find any significant differences in health outcomes of carers between the three diseases that it considered.
The lead author of the report, Dr Liz Sampson, worried that the figures did not show the true extent of mental health problems among bereaved older carers.
“I fear this is just the tip of the iceberg,” she said. “We found that many partners of people with terminal illnesses don’t identify as a carer but rather a husband or wife. This means they often miss out on the support they need following the death of their partner. For this reason it is not impossible to imagine thousands of bereaved elderly people living with undiagnosed depression.”
She added: “Caring for a spouse or partner with a terminal illness is often done willingly out of love for the person they are caring for. However, it can be very stressful. Given that this population of people are often older and isolated in the community, it is sad to observe the increased levels of antidepressants being prescribed to manage their distress.”
Professor Bill Noble, medical director at Marie Curie, shared her sentiments. “In this study very few bereaved partners were identified in the records as being carers, yet no doubt most will have played a vital caring role as we know that one million people in the UK are supporting a family member who has a terminal illness,” he said.
“It’s clear from the increased antidepressant use that caring for someone with a terminal illness can impact heavily on people’s wellbeing. It is, therefore, important not only to recognise the contribution these carers make but also the continued burden they carry in bereavement.”
The study is available to read in full on the Journal of Pain and Symptom Management website.