We hear a lot about the stress of caregiving? Furthermore, many policymakers, medical professionals and others point to the corrosive effects of this type of stress on the caregivers’ health. But is being caregiver stress really that detrimental to a person’s health?
Maybe not. A new study out of Johns Hopkins University’s Center on Aging and Health suggests that caregiving may actually lead to increased longevity for the person who is providing this service. This study involved 3,503 family caregivers who were enrolled in the National Reasons for Geographic and Racial Differences in Stroke (REGARDS) Study. This sample was primarily African American and white adults who were 45 years and older and who primarily lived from the southern region of the United States.
Approximately two-thirds of the caregivers in the study were female and about a third were adult children. These caregivers were individual matched with a group of non-caregivers based on 15 demographic, health history and health behavior categories. The researchers then analyzed the death rates of these two groups of people between 2003 and 2012.
The researchers found that more than 50 percent of the caregivers in the study provided less than 145 hours a week of care. Eighty percent of the caregivers said they did not experience mental or emotional strain or they experienced limited amounts of this type of strain. Less than one in five of the caregivers described having “high strain” due to caregiving duties. Over a six-year period, 264 of the caregivers (or 7.5 percent) died. This number was significantly less than the non-caregivers with whom they were matched; of the non-caregivers, 315 – or 9 percent – died during the same six-year period. The researchers’ analysis found that caregivers had an 18-percent lower rate of death when compared with non-caregivers.
There were some limitations in this research. For instance, the caregivers in this study did not universally perform full time caregiving duties. In some cases, the caregivers visited the person who they were caring for (such as I did with my Mom when she was in a nursing home). Furthermore, researchers did not separate people who had caregiving duties for someone with dementia and those who provided support for a loved one with other types of chronic illness or disability. Additionally, because the research participants were only white and African American, the findings can’t be generalized to other groups of people.
So what to make of this? Here are a few of my thoughts based only on my own experience:
- Having now been a caregiver for a parent in the home setting and also for my mom, who was in a nursing home, the tasks that I had to perform were two different types. With Mom, I served as an advocate who made sure that the nursing staff provided the appropriate care. If you had asked me, I would have rated my stress level fairly low in relation in caregiving. In that role, I had an escape in my home where I could decompress from Mom’s issues. In my current role with my dad (who does not have dementia and is not impaired to the point of needing a nursing home), I am in a more stressful situation since I am in some stage of a caregiving role 24/7. In this current role, I tend to find that my temper tends to fray more now and that I have a higher stress level. Therefore, I’d suggest that caregiving stresses may be better delineated based on what type of caregiving help you’re providing.
- I wonder if there is a regional and cultural difference in caregiving. Having lived in Texas, which has some southern elements of culture to it, providing support for a family member is expected and additional support – whether from extended family members, a church or an extended network of friends – may ease some of the pressure. I would also suggest that the same elements can be seen in the African American community. I’m not saying that other parts of the country don’t have these same characteristics; however, my experience has suggested that these characteristics are strongly engrained in the culture and, thus, in the participants where this study was conducted.
- Finally, again based on my own experience, I think that the stress level of caregiving can hit after it’s all over. I saw this happen when I was caring for mom. I was able to focus on her and maintain my equilibrium during that period by having a mission-driven goal (her care). However, once that focus (Mom) was gone, I definitely felt the aftermath of the stress I was under while caregiving hit me physically, emotionally and psychologically. Therefore, the stress levels that may not be voiced by a caregiver who is in the midst of serving as an advocate may actually show up in force and be a detriment to overall health once the loved one has died.
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