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Practical Insights for Busy Caregivers

Changing the Narrative: How caregiving affects health

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April 25, 2016, by Pat Morden, Caregiver Exchange

grandmother-holding-granddaugther In early April 2016, the Toronto Star reported on a study that once again documented the overwhelming physical and psychological burden of caregiving. It’s a familiar story, but David Roth, Director of the Center on Aging and Health at Johns Hopkins University, isn’t sure it’s the whole story.

In a paper published in the Gerontological Society of America newsletter in February 2015, Roth and his fellow authors argue that when viewed through the lens of rigorous population-based research, caregiving may actually reduce mortality and improve longevity.

Several major population-based studies found that caregivers as a group have significantly reduced mortality rates compared to non-caregiving reference groups. In one study using carefully matched caregiver and non-caregiver subjects, caregivers had an 18% survival advantage over a six-year period compared to non-caregivers.Yet as the paper points out, the media and many advocates continue to paint caregivers as overwhelmed and exhausted.

Why does caregiving appear to confer health benefits? Roth writes: “To be connected through caring relationships with other human beings, especially within one’s own family, is a common human experience that is desired by virtually everyone. Providing care for an older family member or friend with a chronic illness or disability is an increasingly common and important type of caring relationship. We assert that the ‘caregiving-is-stressful’ assumption is an overly narrow, simplified, and limited view on these types of human relationships.”

At the same time, he acknowledges that caregiving often takes a toll. He encourages primary caregivers to create informal care networks of family, friends and community volunteers to ease the burden.  He urges healthcare providers to treat caregivers as partners, giving them the tools and information they need to perform that role better. “This work,” he notes, “would be strengthened by a more balanced image of the caregiver as a resilient and capable ally, as opposed to characterizing caregivers as vulnerable and at-risk co-patients.”

Roth concludes that many family caregivers need supports such as respite care, stress-reduction programs and other interventions.  “We can articulate the need for these services for caregivers without repeating and reinforcing a predominant narrative that providing care to a person with a disability is, in general, a highly stressful, overwhelming and even dangerous activity. . . The more balanced narrative would assist families to help older adults with disabilities to live at home, with the best quality of life possible, and to do so with the full expectation of enjoying a gratifying caregiving experience.”