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Is caregiving good for your health?

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Name something hard to do, especially wearing on you physically and mentally, and likely to add years and enjoyment to your life. 

Give up?  Caregiving.  That’s right; (I bet you thought I was going to say running marathons).  We all know that providing care for a loved one can be stressful and has a tendency to cause health issues such as depression because websites about caregivers tell us so.  Of course it depends upon the level of care needed and the disability of the person in care.  Well, and the study.  Because let’s face it, there are studies out there that say the opposite.  So let’s look at why this one says differently.

The study that found caregiving to be positive was done by the Center on Aging and Health at Johns Hopkins University which looked at over 3,500 people and surprisingly only 17 percent of participants felt that they had high levels of stress.  One possible reason might be that the majority of study participants said they put in fewer than 14 hours of care per week.  So, individuals who did a modest amount of caregiving (modest being relative and by no means suggestive of any value I place on the caregiving) found the experience positive enough that it added to their life expectancy.  Caregivers also reported increased self-esteem, recognition and gratitude from the recipients of their care.

Have you ever run into a person that refuses to allow anyone else to help with their loved one?  I’ll raise my hand right here and say I have.  Caregiving, when done correctly can be a very positive aspect of a relationship with another person.  It won’t be a positive experience though if it wears you down out of sheer stress, which is probably why those caregivers caring for individuals with dementia didn’t see the benefit.  That slow decline can be painful and stressful while caring for someone who slowly improves or stays relatively stable can be gratifying.  Previous studies focused on dementia but the article points out that only about 10 percent of caregivers provide care for dementia patients.  This article from Reuters listed other reasons that being a caregiver in this study was possibly less damaging than in other studies.  Chief among the reasons for that was likely the high number of non-spouse caregivers which helps put into perspective the low number of caregiving hours per week.

Still, Seattle-area Elder Law Attorney, Rajiv Nagaich says frequently on his radio show and in his seminars that aging is a family affair.  If someone in your family is working as a full-time caregiver, it’s time to sit down and talk.  It’s the responsibility of the family to protect the health of not only the individual needing care but also to provide for the caregiver.  That way everyone can benefit from feeling like they’ve contributed to the well-being of someone they love and therefore reap the benefits.

Some suggestions:

Caregiving can be physically demanding but there are tasks that everyone including the youngest child can help with.  Whispering secrets, holding hands, reading aloud, talking about your day, showing off a recent purchase, telling jokes and singing together can be done by anyone 3 years old and up.  Dan Buettner, in his book, “Thrive” talked about how one of the women he interviewed said holding her great grandchild gave her the purpose she needed to get up each day.  Of course, each situation is different so it may not be possible to leave an infant with an individual needing care but I remember all too well how my own grandmother, who suffered from dementia, couldn’t be bothered to come to the phone if she was holding a baby or playing catch with a toddler.  The only difficulty in that situation was figuring out who helped who.

A lot of people see caregiving as something that is only done if you are in physical contact with a person, but if as the person cleaning house and giving baths, you can foist the checkbook on someone that is out of town or have someone else keep tabs on medical situations like keeping prescriptions filled and making decisions about Medicare choices, then you’ll have time to just enjoy the fact that you get to spend time with someone you love.

The approach one person takes might be time consuming or harder even if it accomplished the same goal in the end.  We have an expression “two heads are better than one.”  This is probably the optimum time to put it to the test.

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