THE BLOG
11/12/2013 01:04 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Caregivers Live Longer

Finally, some good news about family caregiving. And right in time for November, which the Obama administration has declared Family Caregiver's Month to recognize the 65 million caregivers in our country who provide unpaid care to those they love.

The good news? A recent study found that, contradicting long-standing conventional wisdom, people who care for a family member live longer than similar people who aren't caregivers.

Now let's be clear -- caregivers who are feeling strained in their caregiving responsibilities face a number of physical and emotional health risks, including increased rates of depression, anxiety, chronic illness, and even stroke.i At the Visiting Nurse Service of New York where I work, we serve a most vulnerable patient population, and their caregivers often assume a lot of responsibility to enable them to remain at home as long as possible. Thrust into this role often with little warning, training or support, many caregivers feel overwhelmed and isolated, and this can have a significant, negative impact on their health.

But according to the Johns Hopkins-led study published online in the American Journal of Epidemiology, an analysis of data previously gathered on more than 3,500 family caregivers suggests that those who assist a chronically ill or disabled family member actually enjoy an 18 percent survival advantage compared to statistically matched non-caregivers. Indeed, caregivers in the study lived a full nine years longer than non-caregivers over the course of the six-year study.

So it seems that caregiving in itself isn't what puts one at risk for increased mortality, the most threatening problems arise when caregivers feel overwhelmed, trapped and unsupported.

David L. Roth, Ph.D., director of the Johns Hopkins University Center on Aging and Health and first author of the report says, "many caregivers report receiving benefits of enhanced self-esteem, recognition and gratitude from their care recipients. When caregiving is done willingly, at manageable levels, and with individuals who are capable of expressing gratitude, it is reasonable to expect that health benefits might accrue in those situations." ii

Clearly, a lot depends on the care recipient and their interactions with their caregiver. Leah Eskinazi, director of operations for the Family Caregiver Alliance, told National Public Radio that caring for someone with dementia can be extremely stressful when the individual is on a "long inevitable decline" and is increasingly unable to appreciate your help and show gratitude. However, caring for someone with a stroke or an orthopedic injury can be a very positive experience, as you help them progress to higher levels of functioning.iii

Clearly you can't choose the illness your loved one will have, but one thing the Hopkins study tells us is that it may be possible to tilt the balance in your favor a bit -- to learn to appreciate the benefits of caregiving as well as the challenges. Here are a few guidelines to help you get started:

  • First, line up some support. You really can't do this alone, and getting help from others is not a sign of weakness. In fact, it may make the difference between being able to do this for the long-term or not. If someone offers you help, take it. You can even write down a few specific things for people to do -- such as pick up prescriptions, drive to the doctor, or drop off a meal. Always have an answer ready when an offer for help is made.
  • Second, find some time away from caregiving. Although formal respite programs are hard to find in some communities, it may be possible to get your family member into an adult day care program that will be beneficial for your loved one, and provide you with some time to yourself. If someone offers help, remember that it is okay to ask if they can stay with your loved one for an hour or two. You need time to yourself to recharge.
  • Finally, think actively about the positive aspects of caregiving. If your family member is able to communicate, talking about the things in life you've shared can be rewarding for both of you. Take time to look at old photos or videos, chat about people you love, or reminisce about trips you've taken. Using this time to strengthen your connection to one another can help you feel good about the work you're doing and give your loved one a chance to express their thanks too.
  • If you are caring for someone who cannot communicate, consider how frustrating this must be for them and look for moments to connect, to let them know you care. But it's important to recognize that your road is a more difficult one. Reach out to other caregivers in your situation, and look for opportunities to give and get support. Recognizing that the work you do is important and that you're not alone in your situation will help you reap the most positive benefits from your caregiving.

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i [The National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP (2009), Caregiving in the U.S: National Alliance for Caregiving. Washington, D.C.] - Updated: November 2012

[Zarit, S. (2006) Assessment of Family Caregivers: A Research Perspective in Family Caregiver Alliance (Eds.), Caregiver Assessment: Voices and Views from the Field. Report from a National Consensus Development Conference (Vol. II) (pp. 12-37). San Francisco: Family Caregiver Alliance.] - Updated: November 2012

[AARP Public Policy Institute Valuing the Invaluable: 2008 Update. The Economic Value of Family Caregiving] - Updated: November 2012

Stroke. 2010; 41: 331-336 Published online before print January 14, 2010, doi: 10.1161/STROKEAHA.109.568279

iihttp://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/news/media/releases/johns_hopkins_led_study_shows_increased_life_expectancy_among_family_caregivers

iiihttp://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2013/10/16/235384054/family-caregiving-can-be-stressful-rewarding-and-life-affirming