March 6, 2014

Good News for Caregivers, Finally

Several months ago, I was asked to participate as a blogger on Aging Care, a site dedicated to helping caregivers for the elderly. No, I’m not really a caregiver – and don’t yet receive the kind attention of a caregiver – but, nearing my 85th birthday, I'm sure to need caregiving support as my Parkinson's disease progresses. I've been very impressed with care being given to members of my PD support group by both spouses and professional caregivers.
In the March 2014 edition of the University of California’s Berkeley Wellness Letter, I was intrigued  by a report titled “Good News for Caregivers.” It was based on a National Institutes of Health (NIH) study – published recently in the American Journal of Epidemiology -- that tracked 3,500 family caregivers (average age: 63) over six years. Researchers drew two particularly interesting conclusions:
  1. The caregivers experienced 18% lower mortality than their matched, non-caregiving equivalents in the control group,
  2. The greatest survival benefit affected those caregivers who were helping an elderly parent (a subgroup that represented about a third of all caregivers involved in the study).
More often, we hear about the giant burden caregivers bear, how their stresses carry severe negative consequences for their physical and mental health, how the accumulating pressures and strains can even shorten caregivers’ lives.

Last October at the World Parkinson Congress in Montreal, I heard a woman from India describe the monstrous stress she felt taking care of her ailing elderly father. She said her strain was that much worse because – in her culture – she was unable to express her own anxieties to anyone, even to other family members, since doing so would be considered inappropriate and disrespectful. I could tell this brave woman found it therapeutic to talk about her situation with our large group of sympathetic – not judgmental – listeners.

I hope she – and all stressed-out caregivers -- see the positive results from this new study. The findings – that being a caregivers can even lengthen your life – are similar to the conclusions from studies we’ve seen about the power of altruism: that helping others in any meaningful way brings health benefits to both recipient and provider. 

That correlation would seem a no-brainer to all normal people who have, very simply, just felt good about helping someone else. Being kind, helpful, pleasant to others feels like its own reward.

The study ended this way:
Negative public health and media portrayals of the risks of family caregiving may do a disservice by portraying caregiving as dangerous and could potentially deter family members from taking on what can be a satisfying and healthy family role. Public discussions of caregiving should more accurately balance the potential risks and gains on this universal family role.

Sounds like good advice to me.

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