A lack of social support is a likely contributory factor in explaining the high blood pressure among these parents, according to one of the study’s authors, Dr Stephen Gallagher.
Dr Gallagher, who is based at the centre for social issues in the University of Limerick, said although some parents “cope very well and derive great benefit from their caring role”, “others struggle physically, psychologically, and socially”.
Dr Gallagher said their findings underscored the importance of providing psychosoical interventions to improve the health of family caregivers, especially when it was evident that their social interactions declined over time, depriving them of much needed support.
As part of the study, 35 parents of children with developmental disabilities — predominantly autism and Down’s syndrome — and 30 parents of typically developing children were recruited.
Each was fitted with an ambulatory blood pressure monitoring device for 24 hours and given a pack of psychosocial questionnaires to complete.
The questionnaires looked at parents’ occupations, how much they smoked, how much caffeine they drank, and how much time was spent exercising, in other words, the range of activities that have a bearing on blood pressure.
They were also asked stress-related questions such as how often they felt in control of important things in their life or if their child displayed challenging behaviour such as fighting with other children.
In addition, they were asked to quantify family- specific supports such as if they had someone to help take care of their child. Responses were taken into account when measuring blood pressure.
The findings of the research tallied with the findings of numerous other studies showing the negative impact on health the demands of caring for a child with developmental disabilities can have.
This includes compromised immunity and lower antibody response to medical vaccinations.
Dr Gallagher said the study showed that providing care to a child with a developmental disability can often be very challenging and without social support, blood pressure can be affected “in a way that could put them at risk of future cardiovascular health”.
Although the study was carried out in the UK, Dr Gallagher is now planning a similar study in Ireland, extending it to include older caregivers of people with diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, as well as parents of children with a broader range of developmental disabilities.
* Anyone interested in participating in the study should contact Dr Stephen Gallagher, Department of Psychology, University of Limerick, by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org