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Caring for Two
Professor Karen Lyons is studying how supporting both patients and their care partners can lead to better health care outcomes.
At some point in our lives, most of us will end up caring for a loved one as they go through an illness or even a terminal disease. This experience can transform a relationship in complicated ways that can affect the physical and mental health of both the patient and their care partner. These relationships, called dyads, are a research specialty of Connell School of Nursing Professor Karen Lyons, a psychologist who believes that health care strategies focused on both people in the dyad can improve their mental health and their relationship, and can even help them to better manage the sick person’s physical care.
Lyons’s most recent study, funded by the National Institutes of Health, focused on thirty-seven dyads in which the ill person had been diagnosed with congestive heart failure. The study took place over the course of the pandemic, so the dyads met up for seven Zoom sessions with a mediator to talk through how both members were feeling. “We’d ask them about symptoms for the person with heart failure,” Lyons said, “and we’d ask each of them, What do you think the pain level is? And of course, they were rarely on the same page because they didn’t talk about it.”
The mediators encouraged the couples to talk about things like what they do together, as both partners and individuals, and whether there were other people in their lives or communities who could help contribute to the long-term care. They also worked with the study participants to strategize better communication tactics. “It was really about trying to get them onto the same page,” Lyons said. The dyads who went through the specialized counseling reported that they were better able to collaboratively manage the sick person’s disease. Plus, more than 90 percent of the participants said their relationship was in better shape and that they’d gained confidence in managing the illness. For instance, patients were more likely to take helpful medication when needed.
With a master’s degree in social gerontology and a PhD in dementia caregiving, Lyons specializes in working with people in later stages of life. She’d originally planned to go into child psychology, but an early volunteering experience at a nursing home made her sharply aware of how often older people are abandoned by their families. “I had been a little naive in assuming that everybody aged in a good way,” she said. “That was a light bulb that went off, that this is where I’m needed, this is where I want to be—studying and supporting people as they age through older adulthood.”
Now Lyons hopes to use the positive results of her recent study to secure support for larger-scale research projects centered on other effective strategies that can help dyads navigate illness together. “The more we can optimize their health and keep their relationships strong, the better outcomes both of them will have,” she said.
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