Healthcare professional helps senior woman walk with a walker
Credit: Getty Images, SDI Productions

Caregiving may be stressful for some people, but it can have mental health benefits for others, according to a new study. The author said people should not automatically categorize caregiving as a chronic stressor and would like to see more balance in the way it’s portrayed.

The research was published in the December issue of Advances in Life Course Research.

Adult caregivers who experience depression largely do so due to a loved one having a serious health problem. Caregiving itself, however, is associated with fewer symptoms of depression, Sae Hwang Han, an assistant professor at University of Texas at Austin and author, found.

“While the act of caregiving is often characterized as a stressful experience detrimental to mental health, recent studies are challenging this view by reporting robust health and well-being benefits linked to family caregiving,” the author wrote. 

Data came from the US Health and Retirement Study, and included 4,812 adult children over 50 as they cared for their mothers.  Of them, 53% were women, and the average age of the adult children was 57.  The author started evaluating data from 1992, and looked at nine waves of biennial data from 2002 to 2018 (information wasn’t consistently measured prior to 2002). Mothers in the study were about 82 years old at baseline; about 15% had dementia, 15% had mild disability and 10% had severe disability.

“Decades of research on this topic indicate that there are positive and negative aspects to being a caregiver,” the author said in a statement. “It’s widely assumed the negatives far outweigh the positives, that caregiving is a chronic stressor and that it contributes to worse health and well-being. But the evidence doesn’t always bear that out.”

“Most previous studies start by identifying caregivers and compare their well-being to non-caregivers,” Han said. “But having a loved one experience a serious health problem in later life is itself a very depressing event. It’s unsurprising that these studies would find a heightened risk of depression in caregivers compared to non-caregivers, who often do not have serious health problems in the family. That’s a misleading comparison, just as it would be misleading to compare the well-being of someone going through chemotherapy to someone who doesn’t have cancer.”