Optimal caregiving is essential for adolescents to thrive. In the current study, we set out to document the HRQoL status of primary caregivers taking care of HIV exposed adolescents in a rural area of coastal Kenya. Our results show that in the current era of highly active ART, most caregivers of HIV exposed adolescents are biological parents, often their mothers, unlike in the earlier years of the epidemic where many were ageing grandmothers (5, 6). Overall, the HRQoL of caregivers in this sample was within the average level. However, our sample presented large HRQoL deficits in vitality (energy/fatigue), pain, social functioning, and emotional wellbeing domains. These domains highlight the important HRQoL targets that can be plausibly prioritized for interventions seeking to improve the quality of life of caregivers of HIV exposed adolescents in the study setting. A closer examination of these domains indicates the critical need for addressing the mental and psychosocial needs of these caregivers.
There is a large body of evidence showing that HIV infected adults are generally at risk of poorer quality of life outcomes than demographically-comparable HIV uninfected counterparts partly because of social circumstances, relationship issues, comorbidities, and stigma in addition to their underlying infection (43, 44). However, few studies have examined the effect of caregivers' and care recipients’ HIV serostatus on the carer's HRQoL in SSA. In our study, only the HIV status of the care recipients predicted HRQoL among the caregivers in adjusted models. Contrary to our initial hypothesis, caregivers' HIV serostatus was not associated with HRQoL. This finding could perhaps be an indication that the distress arising from caring for an HIV infected adolescent has more negative impact than the carer's own status on the HRQoL. Indeed, a recent qualitative exploration of the challenges faced by adolescents living with HIV in the same study setting identified several challenges that the adolescents face including poverty, poor mental and physical health, unsupportive school system, high levels of stigma, problems with HIV disclosure, and medication adherence (45). Arguably, such challenges could be taking a toll on the caregivers HRQoL; however, more studies are required to understand the role of these factors on the caregivers' HRQoL. Our observation could be further explained by the significant economic burden that caregivers of HIV infected adolescents are likely to face in their caregiving roles. Indeed, a recent cross-sectional study in the same study setting documented significant economic burden (especially for transportation and medication costs) among caregivers of perinatally HIV infected adolescents (46). However, it could be that some of the adult carers are HIV uninfected and yet taking care of HIV infected adolescents or even vice-versa whereby an HIV infected carer is taking care of PHEU adolescent who poses fewer challenges, he/she (adolescent) is disease-free. This discrepancy of HIV serostatus could have limited the effects on the overall HRQoL outcomes.
Another key finding from the present study was the predictive effect of depressive symptomatology on HRQoL (overall and all subscales) among caregivers. Our finding on worsening HRQoL with an increasing burden of depression is consistent with the results of a recent cross-sectional study which examined the impact of cognitive and mental health outcomes on the HRQoL of a low literacy adult population in the same study setting (40). Besides, there have been several reports of poor psychosocial and mental health outcomes in both HIV exposed and HIV unexposed individuals in our study setting (40, 45, 47–49). High rates of untreated depressive symptoms, perhaps because of HIV-related stigma and difficulties in accessing care, could explain why it is such a strong predictor of HRQoL in this sample (49). Untreated depression could result in impaired economic productivity, reduced ability to perform work and social roles, loss of relationships, physical decline, and problem-solving deficits for the caregivers, hence negatively impacting their HRQoL (50).
Among caregivers' sociodemographic factors, only socioeconomic status correlated positively with HRQoL while age, education level, and relationship with adolescents influenced HRQoL negatively. Similar to findings from other developing countries, having a professional job relative to subsistence farmers (many of whom are likely to be unemployed) was associated with improved overall HRQoL (51). Arguably, individuals in formal employment are more likely to have higher educational level, enjoy higher wages and better working conditions and work environments compared to those without professional employment, thus less likely impacted by high caregiving burden (as may be the case for carers of HIV infected adolescents (46)), hence the improvement in their HRQoL. Better socioeconomic status has long been associated with good health outcomes in the literature (14). Individuals of higher socioeconomic status are likely to have a more enlightened attitude towards disease management, better health-seeking behaviours, and more likely to be employed hence easily access healthcare services, which could invariably enhance their HRQoL. In our study, a unit increase in socioeconomic status score was associated with 2.3-point improvement in HRQoL in the role limitations due to emotional problems domain.
We also found out that having secondary level education relative to lack of formal education was strongly associated with reducing HRQoL in the physical functioning domain. The reason for this observation is not well understood; more detailed studies (with larger samples) are needed to explore the impact of educational status on HRQoL. We also noted that a unit increase in caregivers age was associated with declining overall, and subscale (physical functioning, role limitations due to physical health and social functioning) HRQoL. A study in Namibia did not find any association between age and HRQoL (18). However, this study had a smaller sample size (n = 97), composed of general caregivers (not of HIV exposed adolescents), did not adjust for the caregivers' HIV status, and most of them had a chronic illness that prevented them from working. Our finding could potentially be due to the direct effect of ageing on caregivers (reduced muscle mass) which has been linked with lowered muscle strength, reduced maximal aerobic exercises, and decreased bone density (14, 52). It could also be related to HIV treatment factors such as adherence, viral suppression, among others. However, these factors were not measured in the current study. Moreover, cumulative exposure to risk factors, including sedentary lifestyles, loneliness usually associated with reduced physical activity could also play a role in our observation. Related to this finding, we also observed that being a grandparent relative to a biological mother was associated with a reduced quality of life in the physical functioning and pain domains. Older caregivers (many of whom are grandparents) are likely to experience an excess risk of caregiving burden, child behavioural difficulty, weakened support systems, geriatric syndromes (e.g. impaired mobility, somatic symptoms such as chronic pain) which are likely to harm their health outcomes (53, 54). In Uganda, however, older caregivers of HIV exposed people were more likely to report better health compared to those without caregiving responsibility (11).
Among child characteristics, we found out that caring for a male adolescent influenced caregivers HRQoL negatively. Likewise, the increasing age of adolescent was associated with a decline in caregivers HRQoL in the pain domain. In this cohort, both male sex and increasing age are risk factors for poor adolescent health outcomes such as multiple health risk behaviour (32). Thus, it is plausible that the care for adolescent males involves various sources of distress for the carers, and these have implications for the carers HRQoL. Also, this period coincides with multiple adjustments for the growing adolescent and the caregiver such as disclosing the HIV status to the adolescent, handling sexuality issues for the adolescent (e.g. forming relationships) and how to manage the potentially elevated risk of HIV-associated psychosocial problems. Such adjustments could partly explain the decline in caregivers HRQoL, especially in the absence of adequate psychosocial support to the caregivers on coping positively (55, 56). This could also be partly explained by an increasing caregiving burden in the caregiver as the child grows. It may translate into more needs for adolescent in terms of food, educational requirements such as school fees, and active parenting issues (such as disciplining issues) and others. Nonetheless, we cannot make firm conclusions regarding the role of these factors in the current analyses; more research is needed to explore them further, particularly within the context of qualitative studies.