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Caregiving Research Wins Accolades for TC Student

The caregiving process and the well-being of family caregivers have been among the most frequently investigated gerontological topics. Despite the fact that family caregiving occurs in the context of a long-standing and emotionally laden relationship, much of the research has overlooked interpersonal factors.

That isn't the case with Laura K. Nisco. She is a scholar whose passion for her research is borne out of her own relationship with her mother and the caregiving role she undertook after her mother's untimely death.

Nisco received her doctorate from TC in Clinical Psychology in 1998 and is a practicing psychotherapist at the Brooklyn Center for Psychotherapy. She is also a Postdoctoral Research Associate who is working with Professor Elizabeth Midlarsky at the College's Center for Lifespan and Aging Studies. Both scholars are collaborating on issues relating to caregivers, their well-being, and their interpersonal relationships.

The Gerontological Society of America's Social Science Section selected Nisco as the winner of its 1998 Dissertation Award. The American Psychological Association's Adult Development and Aging Division followed up with a July, 1999, accolade for the "best entry in the completed postdoctoral research category."

Nisco's dissertation and postdoctoral work, The Well-Being of Daughters Caring for Elderly Mothers: The Role of Attachment Style and Relationship Quality, looked at the impact of the long-term relationship between mother and daughter on caregiver well-being in 118 middle-aged women providing care for their frail, elderly mothers.

Very much at ease with herself, Nisco spoke about how she developed an interest in caregiving and how it affected her research. Nisco, who lost her mother at the age of 15 and was the oldest girl in the family, says, "I felt like it was my responsibility to take on my mother's role in some way and to fill the gap that my mother's death had created. The caregiving role made me aware of the relationship issues in taking on a role like that."

For Nisco the most significant factor in her research revolved around the early relationship between mother and daughter. As she explains, "It seemed to me that that would be important in determining how the caregiver would feel right now in the present. That is what 'attachment theory' tells us."

Nisco, defines "attachment" as an on-going relationship throughout the life span. The quality of that tie predicts a number of the outcomes in later life, according to the researcher. "And so it was my thought," Nisco relates, "that attachment style would also predict caregiving outcomes-an area that was totally unexplored at the time I began my research."

Nisco distributed a detailed questionnaire to a sample of 118 middle-aged women who spent at least ten hours a week caring for their mothers and asked them about their caregiving experience and about their relationship with their mothers. "There were three particular things that I was focused on: the attachment style of the caregiver-what is their pattern of relating to others; the recollections or perceptions of early caregiving history in which the mother was the caregiver; and third, what are the perceptions of current conflict between the caregivers and their mothers."

"What I hypothesized," Nisco, explained, "was that these three factors would predict how well the caregiver is functioning-their levels of stress, their levels of depression, and how burdened and satisfied they felt in the caregiver role."

"I expected that if there was a secure attachment style, less conflict in the present, and if there were more positive memories of the past relationship, there would be better well-being. And those hypotheses were borne out," she said.

Nisco reflects on the implications of the research as more and more people take on caregiving roles. "It is important for a caregiver to look at the relationship with the parent and to acknowledge the positives and negatives about it. What is most important is to come to terms with some of the ways that the parent may not have met their expectations and to think clearly about present realities. Letting go of the past is the first step toward positive well-being."

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