NY Times asks: Are caregivers healthier? Jury’s still out

I read the “New Old Age” blog in the New York Times when I can, and a recent headline caught my eye: “Are caregivers healthier?”

The post is about David Roth, director of the Johns Hopkins Center on Aging and Health, who published a recent study in The American Journal of Epidemiology that lends support to the “healthy caregiver hypothesis.” As writer Paula Span describes the work, Roth inserted a few key questions into a large national stroke study, enabling his team to compare about 3,500 family caregivers older than 45 with noncaregivers of the same age, gender, education level and self-reported health. After an average six-year follow-up, he and his colleagues found that the noncaregivers had significantly higher mortality rates. Nine percent of them had died, compared with 7.5 percent of caregivers, who were 18 percent less likely to die during the six-year period — a nine-month increase in life expectancy. That amounts to “a considerable survival advantage” for caregivers, Dr. Roth said.

Span also notes: Of course, you don’t need to be a statistician to see that if the burdens of caregiving can be overstated in studies like these, the benefits might be, too. … Some people in some situations find that the responsibilities of caregiving (a.k.a. “caregiver burden”) take a toll on their own health and well-being. For others, a different set of conditions may produce what gerontologists call “caregiver gain,” including both psychological and physical benefits.

Span solicited comments. So far, there are only 11, which seems alarmingly low. Mine is among them, and it has received 8 recommendations from other readers:

For me, taking care of a mother with Alzheimer’s sharpened my perspective about what is important in my own life. I turned 40 about two weeks before she was diagnosed. I was keenly aware of research detailing the health effects of stressful caregiving. I took a pay cut to change jobs, leaving a very stressful office for a job with a saner pace and a wonderful boss. I started therapy, enrolled in a clinical trial about caregiver health and began blogging. Eventually, I took up meditation. I never cared for Mom in my home, but I have been her POA and the “responsible party” since her diagnosis in 2005. There is so much guilt, so much concern for the patient’s well-being, of course, and just endless decision-making to do what’s best for the patient. But I have been adamant that caregiving would not ruin my life. It might sound selfish, but I think it’s also fair. Why would my health and life have to take a back seat to my mom’s? In a nursing home devoted to patients with dementia, she is safe, content and her physical health is better now than it was 10 years ago. In my caregiver support group, I have frequently made a point of saying: “We matter, too.”

4 comments so far

  1. Kristy on

    And what a brilliant comment it is. So true. Good on you for looking after yourself, more people need to learn to set boundaries and look after themselves as well.

  2. momsbrain on

    Thank you, Kristy! I’ve since had one person reply to me. She essentially said I’m lucky my health and life don’t have to take a back seat to mom’s – but that some people have no choice. I’m not going to argue with her. But I never felt I had no choice about looking after myself. I also never took Mom in to my home, and I know many people think that makes me a terrible daughter.

  3. Jeff on

    Hi Em – somehow I hadn’t seen these comments after the post. I’m so curious/furious about that people think you are a terrible daughter for not taking our mom into your home. She was and has been in such a safe environment since her first move to assisted living. While the concept of having a declining parent in your home holds some romanticism, I suppose, the lack of an around the clock nursing and healthcare staff could be so dangerous for everyone involved. I hope you didn’t get any negative energy and comments from any of Mom’ s friends. You have so obviously always made the best choices for Mom and for you and Patrick.

  4. momsbrain on

    Hi, Jeff – thank you for sticking up for me! No one has personally ever told me I am a bad daughter. I just know in the caregiving community that some don’t think I am a “real” caregiver because I didn’t look after Mom in my home or her home. Some people see placement in a facility as a total betrayal of a family member. I don’t see it that way. Many patients actually do better in a facility than at home – they can relax in a facility because they are part of a community there of people who are similar to them. You make a good point about safety. And I can’t help it – I want Mom to be safe and to feel as good as she can emotionally and physically. And I want the same for myself. Some people sacrifice their own health for their loved ones, and I just don’t see that as accomplishing anything good. That makes two sick people instead of one. It shouldn’t have to be that way.

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