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Caregiving’s Unrealized Emotional Benefits

Offering Support May Lower Depression

Caregiving’s Unrealized Emotional Benefits

By John Salak –

Caregiving for an aging parent or spouse can be stressful, particularly if Alzheimer’s or other cognitive issues are involved. 

WellWell, in fact, recently reported on a study out of Finland that claimed more than 60 percent of these caregivers suffer from at least mild depressive symptoms by the time the actual Alzheimer’s patient is diagnosed. The Finnish research went on to note that up to one-third of these caregivers will see their depressive symptoms worsen during the next five years, potentially undercutting a caregiver’s health, financial resources and ability to help the family member in need.

A new study out of The University of Texas at Austin is questioning at least in part the perceived negative impact of caregiving, noting that it can have benefits as well. Individuals providing support may actually live longer than non-caregivers and discover giving help lowers their depression. 

The Texas report specifically found that depression in adult caregivers is mostly driven by having a loved one experiencing serious health problems, but at the same time becoming a caregiver is associated with fewer symptoms of depression compared to others who aren’t offering care. 

“Decades of research on this topic indicate that there are positive and negative aspects to being a caregiver,” reported Sae Hwang Han, the paper’s author and an assistant professor at the university. “It’s widely assumed the negatives far outweigh the positives, that caregiving is a chronic stressor and that it contributes to worse health and well-being. But the evidence doesn’t always bear that out.”

The apparent contradiction in the impact is what led the university to investigate further. The focus of previous studies, in fact, may have led to a misperception of how caregivers are affected, Han speculated.

“Most previous studies start by identifying caregivers and compare their well-being to non-caregivers,” Han said. “But having a loved one experience a serious health problem in later life is itself a very depressing event. Unsurprisingly, these studies would find a heightened risk of depression in caregivers compared to non-caregivers, who often do not have serious health problems in the family. That’s a misleading comparison, just as it would be misleading to compare the well-being of someone going through chemotherapy to someone who doesn’t have cancer.”

The university dug further by following a group of adult children over the age of 50 who had a living mother. The research specifically tracked changes in their mental health as some of the mothers became disabled or cognitively impaired and the adult children became caregivers. 

Han found that adult children became more depressed as their mothers’ health deteriorated but found no evidence that becoming a caregiver worsened their depression.

“Rather, I found that caregiving alleviated the extent to which adult children became depressed in response to their mother’s health problems, suggesting that there may be something protective about being able to help others we care about,” he noted.

An earlier study by the same team found that spouses providing caregiving to their partners saw similar effects.

The Texas research touches on a wide range of adults as it is estimated that one in five Americans provide caregiving to an adult with health and functional needs. Beyond this, approximately half of people over 50 are caregivers to older adults. 

Caregivers absolutely need support, but Han maintains the role does not have to be a source of dread and depression.

“There is no disputing that caregiving can be a very stressful experience,” he said. “But some stressful experiences also make you more resilient and help you grow.”

 

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