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Caring for Chronically Ill Spouse May Have Psychological Benefits

Caring for Chronically Ill Spouse May Have Psychological BenefitsNew research suggests that there may be some benefit in caring for a spouse with health problems.

Chronically ill and disabled patients are most often cared for at home and many times without paid or voluntary assistance.  More than 96% of terminally ill patients are cared for at home, typically by their spouse.

In recent years there has been widespread recognition that caregivers of chronically ill spouses often suffer from ‘burnout.’ There has been extensive research describing the potential psychological and physical health consequences of providing long term care to a loved one.

Caregivers have been shown to have three times the rate of depression as the general population, lower satisfaction with life, and poorer physical health. Spouses of chronically ill patients also experience more anger and anxiety, and have more difficulty functioning in work and social situations.  In one study, 25% of caregivers for patients with advanced cancer sought treatment for mental health issues. Spouses also often give up many of their personal needs.

However, a new study from the University of Buffalo finds that in some cases, providing such care may actually improve psychological health.

Dr. Michael Poulin from the University of Buffalo, in collaboration with a team of researchers from the University of Michigan Department of Internal Medicine, followed 73 spouses of chronically ill or disabled individuals.

The spouses ranged in age from 35 to 89 years, and all provided full time care in the home.  Acts of helping the ill spouse were defined as ‘active,’ such as assisting with feeding, bathing, dressing, or other physical activities, or ‘passive,’ such as being present in case of emergency.

The research team gave each spouse a Palm Pilot which was programmed to beep at random times, asking the participant to describe their emotional state, what activities they had engaged in since the last beep, and how much time had been spent in active or passive activities.

Poulin’s team found that when spouses were engaged in active caring tasks they had an increase in positive emotions, while time spent in passive care tended to provoke more negative emotions.  Spouses who viewed themselves as sharing a mutually close relationship with their spouse had even higher levels of positive emotion while engaged in active caring.

Age did not affect the relationship between emotions and caring; spouses of all ages experienced more positive emotions with activity.

Greater numbers of Americans are living longer and developing chronic illnesses.  With changes in medical practice, hospital stays tend be shorter, and patients are discharged to home sooner.  Patients also tend to survive chronic illness for longer periods of time, increasing the burden on caregivers.

One method of providing assistance to family caregivers is respite care, where someone else comes into the home to provide care, relieving the spouse for a period of time.

The results of this study are particularly important in designing respite care programs. To maximize the assistance to caregivers, and maximize the mental health of caregivers, respite programs can give less time off from the emotionally rewarding activities, and provide more passive care relief.

Sources: University of Buffalo, Psychology and Aging

Caring for Chronically Ill Spouse May Have Psychological Benefits

Jessica Ward Jones, MD, MPH

APA Reference
Jones, J. (2018). Caring for Chronically Ill Spouse May Have Psychological Benefits. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 26, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 23 Jun 2010)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.