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Caregiving and the '5 Languages of Love'

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For years, research has shown that caring for an aging family member may put a caregiver's health at risk. Now, a National Institutes of Health study suggests that your "personality type" can possibly help predict just how risky caregiving might be for you.

To better understand why caregiving takes a greater toll on some people rather than others, researchers analyzed data on 536 people with an average age of 63 who were caring for an older adult with multiple impairments. The researchers measured five basic personality traits -- neuroticism, extraversion, openness, agreeableness and conscientiousness.

Not surprisingly, their analysis revealed associations between the caregiver's health and their personality types. For example, extraversion was associated with good mental and physical health, while neuroticism (anxious and easily overwhelmed by stressful experiences) was associated with worse health. Self-efficacy (belief in one's ability to achieve a goal or perform a task) also correlated with better physical and mental health.

Does that mean if you're an anxious introvert you shouldn't be caring for an aging parent? Certainly not! But we all have "innate" personality traits, some of which the study suggests might make us better able to withstand the daily stresses that go along with caregiving.

Interestingly, we also have different ways of showing love or caring. Understanding those specific "tendencies" might also help caregivers identify the tasks for which they are best-suited -- and help relieve some of the stress that arises when you perceive one family caregiver isn't pulling his or her weight or caring as much as the others.

In the popular series of books, The Five Love Languages, author Gary Chapman explains that people express and receive love best through one of five different communication styles: quality time, words of affirmation, gifts, acts of service, and physical touch.

If you're fortunate enough to be sharing caregiving with siblings or other family members, consider divvying up caregiving tasks to divide the load and provide the kind of care that is most meaningful for each caregiver. If you don't currently have help with caregiving, try recruiting family members for tasks based on their communication styles.

Does your brother express love by acts of service, for example? Have him drive your mom to appointments or take care of needed repairs on her house.

Is your sister the "touchy-feely" type, showing love through physical touch? Your mom would probably love to have her brush or style her hair or sit with her and just hold her hand.

Does your niece never let an occasion pass without sending a card or gift? A week's worth of frozen, prepared meals or an occasional bouquet of flowers to brighten her home -- and her mood -- are gifts your mother would likely love.

One mistake caregivers often make is thinking they have to do it all themselves, and that can wear anyone down, regardless of their personality type. If you've fallen into the sole caregiver role because you feel it is your cross to bear or you have difficulty being assertive enough to say "no," your personality itself may be putting you at an increased risk for the detrimental effects of caregiving stress. It's time for you to insist on help!

Making the most of caring communication styles can help relieve stress for everyone involved in the caregiving process, while ensuring that the person you're caring for is getting the care he or she needs.