It’s hard enough taking care of a chronically ill or disabled family member, but frequent reports about the health risks of caregiving can make it even worse. Caregiving is often stressful, of course, so it’s not surprising that some studies have found that it can impair the helpers’ physical health and well-being and even shorten their lives.
All is not bleak, however. Other studies, which tend to get less media attention, have found no adverse health effects from caregiving—and some even suggest it may help people live longer, under some circumstances.
The latest positive news comes from a large study about the demographics of strokes, sponsored by the National Institutes of Health and published in the American Journal of Epidemiology. It looked at 3,500 people (average age 63, mostly in the South) taking care of family members over a six-year period. On average, the caregivers had an 18 percent lower mortality rate than their matched non-caregiving counterparts. The biggest survival benefit was seen in the one-third of people who were taking care of an elderly parent.
We’ve all seen movies and heard reports about caregivers who suffer under very stressful situations. Many of us have experienced stressful caregiving firsthand or witnessed it in others. The legitimate concerns about the negative health effects of such “high-strain” caregiving should not be downplayed. But “the caregiving experience is incredibly diverse,” the researchers pointed out, and most caregivers willingly help family members with relatively low levels of need (only one-sixth of caregivers in this study reported high levels of strain). Many caregivers report enhanced self-esteem and recognition by others. “When caregiving is done willingly, at manageable levels, and for individuals who are capable of expressing gratitude, it is reasonable to expect that health benefits might accrue,” the researchers said.
This goes along with other research showing that altruism, such as providing social support and volunteering, can provide health benefits for the giver as well as the recipient.
It’s worth quoting the final lines of the new study: “Negative public health and media portrayals of the risks of family caregiving may do a disservice by portraying caregiving as dangerous, and could potentially deter family members from taking on what can be a satisfying and healthy family role. Public discussions of caregiving should more accurately balance the potential risks and gains of this universal family role.”