Caring for a Loved One Can Be Its Own Reward

If you dread the prospect of spending months or years caring for a very ill family member — or being the one who needs care — there’s some unexpected good news from a study that has found considerable happiness among hands-on caregivers. The study results don’t deny the hard truth about what it’s like to be the primary caretaker for someone who is ill, but the results are quite uplifting.

University of Michigan researchers studied the connection between helping and well-being in caregiving spouses. The researchers started by interviewing caregivers to measure each couple’s degree of interdependence (what researchers called “mutuality of need”) and also to learn whether the caretaker took on the role by choice or, as is often the case, because there were no other options. Then the 73 full-time, at-home caregivers (ages 35 to 89) carried PDAs for one week during waking hours. These were set to beep at various intervals during the day, signaling caregivers to immediately respond to a short set of questions about their current emotional state… the activity they were engaged in… and what they had done (time spent actively helping vs. being “on call”) since the last beep. Examples of “active” caregiving activities were tasks such as giving medications, preparing meals or helping the patient to dress or use the toilet… while time on-call meant the caregiver could engage in an activity, such as reading or watching TV, but had to remain nearby to ensure the spouse’s safety, provide reassurance or make sure nothing went wrong.

Helping Helps the Helper

The study’s lead author, Michael Poulin, PhD, currently assistant professor of psychology at SUNY’s University at Buffalo, told me that researchers found a correlation between providing active help (even including the not very attractive job of helping in the bathroom) and positive feelings — but this effect was reversed for being passively on call. Why? He offered some theories…

  • Focusing on the needs of others may be inherently calming.
  • Active caregivers may find more meaning in their role, believing that they provide better care than could someone else.
  • Helping may invoke a feeling of compassion, which is itself a positive emotional experience.

While the research didn’t delve into the reasons why caregivers felt less positive about being on call, Dr. Poulin speculated that waiting to be needed can be dreary and draining, and it also gives people time to worry about bad things that can (and likely will) occur, including the hospitalization and death of their loved ones.

Another finding: Interestingly, the quality of a couple’s relationship turned out to be more important than whether the caregiver had chosen to take on the role or had to do it. In couples with “high interdependence,” caregivers felt really good about active helping, while feelings about time on-call were neutral. In contrast, for couples with less interdependence, active helping brought minimal positive feelings and on-call time tended to generate negative feelings — and this is the sad situation in which caregiving truly seems like drudgery.

The takeaway is clear — when someone you love is sick or disabled, taking on an active caregiver role is likely to bring unexpected rewards. Of course, your happiness won’t last if you never get a break and can’t pursue some kind of life outside the house. If you can, the trick is to “outsource” the on-call time, as possible, to a willing neighbor or family member or a professional caregiver.

“This study shows that we might be surprised about what will make us happy or unhappy,” said Dr. Poulin. “Not enough people know that helping is good for them.”