BACKGROUND: In 1998, a research study was conducted to compare existing programs in the European Union providing both care to people with senile dementia of the Alzheimer type, and support to their informal caregiver. METHOD: Five programs were selected in seven centres. Home social services (Denmark), Day centres (Germany), Expert Centres (Belgium, Spain), Group Living/Cantou (Sweden, France), Respite hospitalization (France). In each centre, 50 patients were randomly selected. The questionnaire addressed informal caregivers (or referents). It included the Nottingham Health Profile (NHP), the Zarit Scale, and it collected data on age, sex and position (spouse or child) of the informal caregiver, as well as age, level of mental deterioration and disabilities of the patient. RESULTS: (n=322 subjects) Comparatively with caregivers of Respite hospitalization patients chosen as the reference, caregivers of patients cared by Group living/Cantou and Home social services experienced a significantly lower burden. The benefit from the Expert centre program concerned emotional reactions (depression) (odds ratio=0.32; P=0.02) and work burden (Zarit) (OR=0.32; P=0.04). The main benefit for caregivers who received Day centre help was the important reduction of feelings of social isolation (OR=0.13; P=0.0003). CONCLUSIONS: The Group Living/Cantou program appeared as the most efficient way to reduce informal caregiver burden, independently from the country considered.