November 2, 2011
By Sean Coffey, Policy Specialist, Family Caregiver Alliance
As advocates and people that work with family caregivers and their loved ones, we are often focused on the negative aspects of caregiving. There are logical reasons for this, for example, the family caregivers we work with often contact us when they reach a breaking point, so we tend to hear about the many stresses involved with being a caregiver. Or, we focus on the challenges of caregiving because we want our elected officials to be aware of how difficult this role can be and we want them to address these issues through laws and programs that support family caregivers. However, it’s also important to acknowledge that caregiving can be a positive experience for the caregiver as well as their loved one.
For an adult child taking care of their parent, this can be an opportunity to “give back” for the time and energy spent by a parent in raising their child. Or, it can provide an opportunity to grow or deepen a relationship. The majority of Americans prefer to age in their homes, and for many, this wouldn’t be possible without the assistance of family caregivers, so another benefit of caregiving is that it allows people to “age in place.”
A 2009 study on caregivers for stroke survivors asked caregivers about 11 positive aspects of caregiving, and over 90% reported that caregiving “enabled you to appreciate life more.” Other benefits that ranked high included “made you feel needed (88%),” “strengthened your relationship with others(86%),” and “enabled you to develop a more positive attitude toward life (85%).” (full chart available here: Benefits of Caregiving)
The authors conclude: “clinicians should make it a high priority to assess and intervene with caregivers on these highly stressful problems but also to identify perceived benefits of caregiving.”
A more recent survey by the National Family Caregivers Association and Allsup looked at challenges of caregiving and their results suggest that caregiver’s views are dependent on how they became caregivers. For example, caregivers who were thrown suddenly into their roles, as compared to those whose roles developed slowly over years, reported higher concerns about their own health (53% vs. 42%) , getting enough respite care (60% vs. 46%), and their employment situation (42% vs. 31%). The survey also found that the caregivers who had been caring the longest also were also the most concerned about all of these issues except their employment situation, which became less of a concern. Forty-three percent of caregivers who had been caring for less than a year reported being concerned about their own health and this percentage grew to 51% for caregivers who have been caring 10 years or more.
The New Old Age blog on the New York Times website also recently examined research that found positive health aspects of caregiving for women, including lower mortality rates, stronger physical performance, and better performance on memory tests. Dr. Lisa Fredman, the author of the studies, calls it the “healthy caregiver hypothesis” and notes that caregiving require lots of physical activity as well as complex thoughts for monitoring medications, scheduling appointments, and taking over financial management. She also acknowledged that the results of her research may be impacted somewhat by self-selection, with only healthy women (who were capable of caregiving) taking on the caregiver role.
A 2009 study examined family caregivers and found that those who provided 14 or more hours of care per week to their spouse had lower rates of mortality than those who did not provide care to their spouse. While the study does not address the actual mechanism of mortality being lowered by 14 hours or more of caregiving, they suggest that the action of giving help to another may serve as “stress buffer.”
While the research on the benefits of caregiving is ongoing, these studies do suggest that caregiving can have some positive effects. While we acknowledge the potential for positive effects of caregiving, we will also continue to advocate that policymakers acknowledge and support family caregivers in their roles as the back-bone of our long-term care system.