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Good News: Family Caregivers May Live Longer

Caregiving can be stressful—and that stress can lead to many health problems as well as increased mortality rates. But according to a Johns Hopkins-led study, those who cared for a family member with a chronic illness or disability lived a full nine years longer than non-caregivers!

Health Benefits of Caregiving

David L. Roth, PhD, director of the Johns Hopkins University Center on Aging and Health and first author of the study, 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.”

Let’s be clear—caregivers who are feeling stressed by their responsibilities face a number of physical and emotional health risks, including higher rates of depression, anxiety, and heart disease. But it seems that caregiving itself isn’t what increases risk. Problems arise when caregivers feel overwhelmed, trapped, or unappreciated. Caring for someone with dementia, for example, can be extremely stressful, especially if the individual is declining and increasingly unable to communicate or show gratitude for your help. However, caring for someone with a stroke or an orthopedic injury can be a very positive experience, as you help them reach higher levels of functioning.

Balancing the Challenges and Benefits of Caregiving

You can’t choose the illness your loved one will have, but the Johns Hopkins study indicates that you may be able to tilt the balance in your favor a bit—to learn to appreciate the benefits of caregiving as well as the learn to manage the challenges. Here are a few guidelines to help you get started:

  • First, line up some support, because you can’t do this alone. If someone offers to help, ask if they can stay with your loved one for an hour or two. You need time to yourself to recharge.
  • Think actively about the positive aspects of caregiving. If your family member is able to communicate, talking about the life you’ve shared can be rewarding for both of you. Look at old photos, chat about people you love, and reminisce about trips you’ve taken. Strengthening your connection 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 let them know you care. But also recognize that your road is a more difficult one. Reach out to other caregivers who are in situations similar to yours, and look for opportunities to give and get support from others.

Making strong connections with your loved one, as well as other family caregivers, will help you reap the most positive benefits from your caregiving, and lead you on the path to a longer and more fulfilling, life.