New Research Reveals a Surprising Benefit of Caregiving
Family caregivers often hear stories about the hardships their role; however, a recently published study found when done well, caring for a loved one has the potential to extend your life.
The media is full of stories about the hardships endured by the “sandwich generation,” or adults who find themselves caring for both their children as well as their elderly parents. Many of the stories of caregivers who fall sick because of the stress they endure meeting the needs of both their children and their chronically ill or disabled loved one. Other stories lament the isolation experienced by family caregivers that results in depression. Do these news reports accurately portray the experience of family caregivers? A new Johns Hopkins study just released by suggests it does not.
The Benefits of Caring for a Loved One
A research group working at the Johns Hopkins University Center on Aging and Health analyzed data from 3503 family caregivers who were all over the age of 45 and matched with non-givers who had similar health and demographic characteristics. The data set included measurements of the participants’ demographic information, health history, and behaviors that affected their health for a period of six years. Using strong statistical analyses, the research team discovered that the survival rate among the family caregivers was 18 percent higher than that of their peers who did not act as caregivers.
Some of the other benefits reported by family caregivers identified in the study include:
- Increased self-esteem
- Enjoyment of the gratitude expressed by their loved ones
- Appreciation of the recognition of their work by others
The authors of the study note that the family caregivers found that their duties were manageable and they made a choice to care for their loved one. Additionally, they expressed concern that with the negative portrayal of family caregiving in the media, people might be dissuaded to care elderly or infirmed family members. Family members need information about the benefits of caring for a loved one at home as well as the potential risks. Since chronically ill or disabled adults and children have better health outcomes when they are in their homes, as opposed to a hospital, nursing home, or rehabilitation facility, more families will find that third-party payers and medical professionals will advocate for recovery, rehabilitation, and care in the home setting. In fact, according to a Pew Center survey, the number of Americans caring for an older adult increased to 36 percent in 2012 , which is 27 percent higher than 2010.
Strategies for Successful Caregiving
The key to success as a family caregiver is not to isolate yourself, which will increase your stress level and risk of developing depression. Many family caregivers opt to hire a Personal Care Assistant (PCA) from a home health agency to stay with their loved one while they get some time away from home. Others rely on the services of a PCA when they are sick themselves so that they can rest and recuperate. One of the many benefits of contracting with a home health agency is that you can depend on a trained paraprofessional to arrive on time to care for your relative. Additionally, they also help with housekeeping, meal preparation, and helping your loved one with self-care.
Another way family caregivers connect with other and medical professionals is through the internet. The Pew Center reports 30 percent of family caregivers participate in online support groups. In addition to online resources, most Minnesota communities offer disease and condition specific peer support networks. Most family caregivers find it helpful to share their experiences with others who are in similar circumstances.
As medical professionals transition to electronic health records, many doctors are now offering the option to ask questions via email. This makes it much easier for family caregivers to keep the lines of communication with their loved one medical team. When a medical professional is just an email away, most caregivers experience less stress knowing they can ask questions when needed.
An essential part of caregiving is taking good care of yourself and based upon the results of the Pew Center survey, family caregivers in the United States are taking this advice. The survey report indicates that 72 percent of adults caring for family members use web-based tools to track their own diet, sleep habits, exercise routine, and weight. Others use the Internet to find relaxation tips and information about their own health concerns. Many of these online resources and tools are free.
Since many family caregivers juggle managing two households, staying organized is essential. While some caregivers use free task lists and calendars offered by Google, others opt for more elaborate planners and tools. For families with children, parents who are also caring for elderly relatives even use project management software to keep everyone on track and on schedule.
Know When to Ask for Help
Family caregivers who try to do everything on their own are the ones who are most likely to become ill or to fall victim to burnout. Sometimes many caregivers are so busy that they do not notice signs indicating that need to slow down and take a break. Besides avoiding isolation, family caregivers need to maintain a social network that will provide honest feedback and let the caregiver know when they are overextending themselves. If you are unsure where to find local help and resources, check the links at the end of this post. With help and support, both you and your loved one will stay healthy.
Resources and Support for Family Caregivers
- National Alliance for Caregiving
- Caregiver Action Network
- Family Caregiver Alliance
- Minnesota Board on Aging
- Minnesota Home Health Agency
- AARP Caregiver Resource Center