Caregiving’s Sunny Side

Photo by barockschloss via CreativeCommons.

An un-news flash: Caring for a spouse, parent, other family member or friend can cause mental and physical stress. Frankly, many caregivers would rather be doing anything but.

Or would they? A new study from the Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College reveals that older Americans who are highly engaged in caregiving have enhanced well-being. In fact, it rates right up there with paid work, education and training, and volunteering. The study measured levels of engagement in these four areas.

By “engagement” researchers mean feeling enthusiastic, dedicated and absorbed in their activity rather than simply participating.

“We thought caregiving might be an anomaly in the group,” says Jacquelyn James, the Sloan Center’s research director.

Not so. “It had the same benefits of well-being as the other roles, especially in the 65+ group.”

The study surveyed 850 people and found 13% cared for an older adult, 3% for a disabled family member under age 65, 28% for their own child, and 31% provided multiple types of caregiving.

Here’s what the study suggests:

  • If caregivers find the task a drag-obligatory and negative-then it doesn’t boost their well-being. If they view it as a meaningful experience, though, a time to grow closer, say, or feel they are making a difference, then it has a positive impact.
  • Results refute the common belief that older adults often don’t take part in major societal responsibilities. They’re a busy (I mean engaged) group.
  • We should be selective in what we do, participating in activities that make us feel our lives matter. For some people, that is caregiving.

On another front, more results are in to give caretaking’s rep as a wretched proposition a makeover. This week I heard Lisa Fredman, an epidemiologist at the Boston University School of Public Health, speak about her studies comparing elderly female caregivers to non-caregivers.

The findings are dramatic-and again show the positive effects of taking care of  relatives (parents, siblings) and spouses. The task is ultra stressful and yet, caregivers were 26% less likely to die over an eight year period than non-caregivers.

They were also more physically active than those who weren’t caregivers and less likely to become frail three years later.

And when you are in the caregiving trenches, remember this: Their short-term memory also happened to be better over two years than their non-caregiving counterparts.

This research might be cold comfort today, but it’s good to know that there’s a warmer side to the better known caregiver’s story.

What do you think of these results? Can you relate to any of the findings?

View more from Sally Abrahms at