The Benefits of Being a Caregiver
It is a well-known fact that taking on the role of the primary caregiver for a loved one is often so stressful and draining that it can take a toll on your well-being, increasing your risk for chronic stress, burnout and illness. The idea that caregiving could actually provide health benefits seems counterintuitive. However, Dr. Lisa Fredman, a Boston University epidemiologist, and her colleagues, have found that caregivers do reap real physical and cognitive rewards. Using a sample of caregivers and non-caregivers from Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Minneapolis and Portland, Dr. Fredman and her team found that while caregivers are indeed more stressed than non-caregivers, they also tend to have lower mortality rates on average. Looking at 900 women from this sample, even those classified as high-intensity caregivers (e.g. those who assist their loved one with the majority of their ADLs and IADLs) were found to be more physically fit than non-caregivers, performing better on tests like walking pace and grip strength. In addition, caregivers performed significantly better on memory tests than non-caregivers over the two years they were followed; both groups were about the same average age, but caregivers scored at the level of individuals 10 years their junior!
While her results suggest that caregivers may be stronger and stay stronger than women of the same age who don’t take on such a role, we must take study limitations into account. For one thing, Dr. Fredman’s definition of a caregiver includes anyone who performs just one instrumental activity of daily living, lumping together those who may help a loved one with cooking and those who may provide more hands-on help with bathing or around-the-clock care for someone with Alzheimer’s. In addition, because randomization is impossible in such a study, the results may be attributed to natural differences between the groups: women who are healthier may feel more able to take on the role of caregiver. In any case, most caregiving activities do require a lot of movement and the physical and cognitive benefits of exercise are well documented. Moreover, caregiving often involves complex thought—balancing medications, finances and appointments—keeping the mind stimulated. Overall, the burdens and benefits of caregiving likely depend on the individual situation.