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

I am honored that I was asked to participate in a social media event to call attention to the challenges facing caregivers of aging parents. It is hosted by Caring Across Generations (on Twitter, follow #blog4care and/or @CaringAcrossGen). I am technically challenged, however, and messed up an attempt to reblog a post from November 2013. It appears below, and the original, with a few comments, is here. I selected this post because the “New Old Age” blog post that triggered it covered an important issue: the health of caregivers. Could it be that caregivers, despite the stresses of taking care of a sick loved one, somehow experience a gain in terms of their own health? One study suggested that might be the case. But I write about research for a living and I am aware that one study is … one study. Still, the suggestion that there is a “caregiver gain” intrigues me. I do worry about the physical toll of the long-term stress I encountered earlier in Mom’s illness, and wonder if the slow burn of relentless daily thoughts and worries about her might shorten my life somehow. But psychologically and intellectually, I appreciate where I stand on the issue of caregiver health: In my opinion, my health is as important as my mom’s. It would be very difficult to convince me otherwise.

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

Posted November 2, 2013

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. dementedgirl on

    Am sure caring does have an impact on the caregiver’s emotional and physical health… How can it not….?? If you were under such intensive and unrelenting pressure in any other job, you would quit. But this is one you just can’t walk away from…. I agree carers matter too, but it can be hard sometimes to put this into practice in real life!

  2. momsbrain on

    So true that there is no walking away from this job. And even though caregivers matter, that doesn’t mean we don’t make sacrifices for our loved ones. It’s just a shame that so many caregivers lose themselves in the job of caring, and I was determined to keep that to a minimum. Thanks for commenting!

  3. Gloria Mueller on

    I want to tell you that I saw your mom about a week ago and she looked very nice. She was roaming around instead of sleeping. I think she must sleep late in the morning because I hadn’t seen her for months. When I was a caregiver I was stressed without really knowing by just the simple task of driving back and forth daily to the nursing home. I was keenly aware of the fatigue of my visit to see my husband who was healty but confused. I made a point to relax at home and to get a good night’s sleep etc. I even hired a lady to come to the house every two weeks to do some simple housecleaning. This was very important and made me feel good. This was one thing I didn’t have to think about. A caregiver who is employed has my sympathy. Even now as a widow, I’m aware of my good health and don’t take it for granted. I think of you often with love, Gloria

  4. momsbrain on

    So nice to hear from you, Gloria! Thank you for the kind thoughts. You are right, that every aspect of caregiving can have a draining effect, including the drive to and from a nursing home. Even if it’s physically very tolerable, it’s fraught with any number of possible emotions. I’m not sure about Mom’s sleep schedule. She might eat early and then go back to bed. I’m pretty sure she is put down for a nap after lunches, too. She is sleepy after eating. Thanks for commenting! I hope you are well.

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