Caregiving impacts emotional health of the giver

March 19, 2000

Caring for an ill or disabled family member at home takes its toll on the caregiver's emotional health, and on his or her physical health to a lesser extent, according to researchers.

In their study of nearly 3,000 women between the ages of 50 and 65, Eliza K. Pavalko, PhD, and Shari Woodbury, MA, of Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana found that women providing care were more likely to suffer from emotional distress as well as physical limitations.

"These findings provide new information about the health effects of caregiving and have broader implications for understanding how women's involvement in multiple roles affects their health and well being," said Pavalko. "At least half of American women will care for a disabled family member during their lifetime."

Emotional distress appears to increase with the more years spent caregiving, the researchers found. New caregivers reported only slightly higher levels of distress than noncaregivers, and long-term caregivers reported the highest levels. Measures of emotional distress included how often study participants felt happy or sad, had restless sleep, or had crying spells.

"Our findings suggest a process of continuing accumulation of emotional health problems over the caregiving career," said Pavalko.

Contrary to their expectations, the researchers did not find a similar accumulation of physical limitations over the caregiving career. Instead, the moderate increases in physical limitations seen among caregivers in the early stages actually leveled off with longer periods of care. Measures of physical limitations included difficulty standing, stooping, lifting objects, sitting, walking, and using stairs.

This finding suggests that women may adapt physically to caregiving over time. It also suggests that physical limitations -- which appear to crop up at the onset of caregiving, as opposed to emotional distress that accumulates over time -- may necessitate finding replacement sources for care.

Increasing levels of psychological distress, by contrast, do not appear to prompt women to give up their caregiving responsibilities, according to the researchers. Pavalko and Woodbury's results appear in the March 2000 issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior.

Employed women were the least likely to experience physical limitations as a result of caregiving, which suggests that certain characteristics of this group distinguish it from others. "They may have resources from work or home that allow them to gain benefits from both roles," said Pavalko.

More government policies and programs are needed to address the effects of disability on the health of the person providing care, according to the researchers.

This research was supported by the National Institute on Aging, the National Institute of Mental Health, and the Center for Aging Research at Indiana University.
The Journal of Health and Social Behavior is a peer-reviewed quarterly publication of the American Sociological Association. For information about the journal, contact John Mirowsky, PhD, (614) 688-8673.

Posted by the Center for the Advancement of Health For information about the Center, call Petrina Chong, (202) 387-2829.

Center for Advancing Health

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