Caring for the Caregiver/Care Partner

Spotlight On: Dr Mary Chiu 


November 4, 2022

Taking on the role of caregiver/care partner for someone living with dementia can be challenging. There are many associated psychosocial effects, including anxiety, depression, loss of identity, and social isolation. Additionally, compared to the rest of the population, caregivers/care partners for people living with dementia run a 600% higher risk of developing dementia themselves.

Dr. Mary Chiu has dedicated her career to understanding the needs of caregivers/care partners of people living with dementia, and working with this population to develop programs and mechanisms that prepare and support them in their role. Dr. Chiu is currently based at Ontario Shores Centre for Mental Health Sciences (Ontario Shores), and leads TDRA’s Caregiving Research Working Group (RWG).

Dr. Chiu’s focus on dementia caregiving began in her PhD at Sinai Health System, where she worked with Dr. Joel Sadavoy to develop the research arm of the Reitman Centre. Among other programs and services, the Reitman Centre hosts the CARERS Program, which is a closed-group psychotherapy program for community-dwelling caregivers/care partners of people living with dementia. The program incorporates problem-solving therapy, emotional support, and skills-building through simulations. Dr. Chiu studied the clinical effectiveness of the CARERS Program, and found that participants who completed the program experienced improved competence and mastery, and a reduction in burden and depressive symptoms. After establishing the effectiveness of the program, Dr. Chiu then explored how to adapt and scale CARERS for different populations: for example, remote populations who may be resource scarce. This work laid the foundation for the CARERS Program to be delivered by trained clinicians at satellite sites, both nationally and internationally.  

In 2020, Dr. Chiu began work with Ontario Shores, where she is developing research streams focused on caregivers/care partners. At the hospital, Dr. Chiu is proposing an evidence-based, multi-faceted care model for caregivers/care partners of people living with mental health conditions, beginning with dementia. One potential component of this model is the CARERS program for caregivers/care partners whose loved ones are on a clinical unit at the hospital. A study is underway to determine the clinical efficacy of running the program in this inpatient environment, focusing on whether the learnings may be sustained post-discharge. Recovery workshops are another part of the model; these workshops focus on personal recovery of the caregivers/care partners, and are unique in that they can be delivered by peer-support specialists – people with lived experience. Health professional skills training is also key: micro-credential modules will be developed to train staff in interacting with caregivers/care partners of people living with dementia, ensuring they are able to provide appropriate guidance and support. Lastly, social and technological innovations are being investigated. As part of a recently awarded grant, Dr. Chiu and Dr. Amer Burhan are partnering with neurotechnological researchers to adapt the CARERS program into a virtual reality space. This project is part of the work that Dr. Chiu is conducting with TDRA’s Caregiving RWG.

Dr. Chiu has some other exciting projects on the horizon with the Caregiving RWG, for example, standardizing a caregiver assessment tool, which would allow caregivers to be staged so they can be best directed to services and support.  She will also work with Tyler Redublo, a MHSc candidate from U of T’s Translational Research Program to profile young caregivers/care partners (18-24 years old), and to explore the unique needs and cultural implications of their role.