Taking care of an ailing spouse is no easy matter, and the stress many Americans experience as a caretaker is extreme.
Yet University of Buffalo researchers noted that helping behaviors, which are at the core of caregiving, typically relieve stress. Indeed, the caretaking role is paradoxical as the draining demands of caregiving appear to conflict with the uplifting effects of helping.
Resolving that paradox was part of the aim of a new study by Dr. Michael Poulin, an associate professor in psychology and an expert in empathy, human generosity and stress. Poulin and his co-authors found that the strress of caregiving is eased when it is seen to make a difference and is appreciated by the spouse.
The findings of the study, led by Drs. Joan Monin, Yale School of Public Health, Stephanie Brown, Stony Brook University, Kenneth Langa, University of Michigan, and Poulin, appear in the American Psychological Association’s journal Health Psychology.
Poulin said more than 30 years of research shows that being a caregiver is among the most stressful, emotionally burdensome and physically demanding roles a person can take on. Spouses who are caregivers show decreased immune function, increased signs of physiological stress and are at greater risk for physical and mental illness.
Yet other studies, including much of Poulin’s own research, suggest that the act of providing help to somebody is typically stress-relieving and is associated with better emotional and physical well-being.
“The problem is that when you’re a caregiver, not all of your time is spent helping,” says Poulin. “Sometimes all you can do is witness the person’s state while being passively on duty.”
But previous research also confirmed that the act of helping in this context was associated with improving the caretakers’ well-being, a finding that was true even when general caregiving was broken downs into tasks, like feeding or bathing.
“This is what we wanted to get at,” says Poulin. “We knew that something about being helpful is good in these circumstances. But why? Is it just being active? Is doing something better than doing nothing? Or is it that doing something to improve another person’s well-being is what matters?”
The research team conducted two studies with spouses caring for partners with chronic pain.
In the first study, 73 participants reported caregiving activity and their accompanying emotions in three-hour intervals. This allowed the researchers to look at the amount of help given and how much that help pleased the spouse and subsequently affected the caregiver.
The second study involved 43 caregivers who completed a diary at the end of the day that detailed the help they provided and the appreciation they received.
The findings suggest that spouses caring for a partner feel happier and report fewer physical symptoms when they believe their help is appreciated.
“Spending time attempting to provide help can be beneficial for a caregiver’s mental and physical well-being, but only during those times when the caregiver sees that their help has made a difference and that difference is noticed and recognized by their partner,” he said.
“Importantly, this study adds to a growing body of evidence showing that it is important to target emotional communication between spouses in daily support interactions to improve psychological well-being in the context of chronic conditions and disability,” the authors write.
Source: University of Buffalo