Stroke is a very common cause of adult disability often leaving stroke survivors dependent on others. Much of this support comes from informal carers. Research has demonstrated the importance of these carers to survivors’ recovery but also suggests that caregiving has adverse consequences. Meta-ethnography was applied to review qualitative research looking at informal stroke carers’ experiences and responses to caring. Electronic databases from 2006 to 2009 were searched and after application of inclusion and exclusion criteria, seven studies were reviewed.
The experience of caring for stroke survivors centres around change and loss overlaid with uncertainty. Change includes changes in roles and relationships. Losses include former relationships, autonomy and taken-for-granted futures. These challenge carers’ perception of their identity.
Carers respond cognitively and practically and attempts to reconstruct their lives may lead to acceptance and adjustment. This process is one of biographical disruption for carers but can result in personal growth.
If carers and stroke survivors are to be supported, acknowledging specific issues including role and relationship changes and perceptions of reduced autonomy may be more valuable than attempting to reduce carer burden or strain. Clinicians frequently only see families over short periods and may therefore have little understanding of the major, long-term disruptive impact of caregiving. If professionals working with families of stroke survivors are made aware of this and of the necessity for carers to come to terms with their changed roles and identities, they will be better equipped to understand and respond to carers’ practical and emotional needs.