National Family Caregivers (NFC) Month is celebrated each November, in honor and recognition of the roughly 40 million Americans providing care to an adult family member or loved one. In 1997 President William J. Clinton signed the first NFC Month Presidential Proclamation, articulating that “Selflessly offering their energy and love to those in need, family caregivers have earned our heartfelt gratitude and profound respect.” Since that time, every President has continued this tradition, issuing annual proclamations recognizing and honoring family caregivers each November.
This commemorative month is a time to celebrate the contributions of family caregivers, raise awareness of the challenges they face, increase public support for this vast and often invisible workforce, and educate family caregivers about the resources available to them. Caregiving takes a toll on one’s physical, emotional, and financial well-being – especially for the more than three million caregivers ages 75 and older, who may need assistance themselves. At the same time, most caregivers report immeasurable benefits, including a feeling of purpose, a renewed closeness with their loved one, and the chance to “give back” to the parent, spouse, grandparent, or sibling who has been their confidante and protector. In celebration of National Family Caregivers Month, we have created a reading list of recent articles from Gerontological Society of America journals that reveal new scientific insights into the lives of family caregivers.
Many family caregivers are older adults themselves, and must manage their own health chronic health conditions while also assisting their ailing spouse or partner. This study uses data from 359 spousal caregiver-care recipient dyads from the 2011 National Health and Aging Trends Study (NHATS) and National Study of Caregiving (NSOC) to examine similarities and differences in how caregivers and their spouses manage multiple chronic conditions (MCCs). Couples that are mismatched in how they manage their MCCs have poorer health outcomes, and may benefit from support in maintaining their own health as well as their caregiving responsibilities.
“Activity Engagement among Older Adult Spousal Caregivers” by Queen et al. (2017)
Staying engaged and involved in the activities one enjoys may be an important source of caregiver well-being. This study used four waves of data from the Health and Retirement Study (HRS) to examine the ways that spousal caregivers’ well-being is affected by changes in their participation in physical, social, self-care, passive, and novel information processing activities. Caregiving is linked with declines in one’s participation in physical activities, which may ultimately undermine one’s overall well-being.
Do caregiving and other types of helping behaviors affect specific disease outcomes? This study uses ten years of data from the Health and Retirement Study (HRS) to explore the impact on cardiovascular disease (CVD) of three helping behaviors: formal volunteering, informal helping, and caregiving for a parent or spouse. Although caregiving was not linked to CVD risk, volunteering and providing informal help were linked with reduced risk of heart disease. Helping may enhance one’s health, especially if these prosocial behaviors are not particularly stressful or physical strenuous.
“Explaining the Gender Gap in the Caregiving Burden of Partner Caregivers” by Swinkels, Joukje, et al. (2017)
Men and women experience caregiving differently, and thus may experience different health consequences. Using data from the Netherlands’ Older Persons and Informal Caregivers Survey—Minimum Data Set, this study examined gender differences in the burdens facing spouse/partner caregivers and the health consequences of these burdens. Women report more caregiving burden, because they experience more secondary stressors like relationship and financial difficulties, although men’s feelings of burden are linked to the intensity of care required. Reducing care hours may be protective to men whereas social support may benefit women caregivers.
Caregiving often involves daily or “routine” support to aging parents and loved ones. This study uses daily diary data from the National Study of Daily Experiences (NSDE) to explore whether providing routine support to parents is linked with higher negative affect and salivary cortisol – a marker of stress exposure and risk factor for disease. The results show that providing routine support to parents is linked with both negative health outcomes, although these effects were not amplified on days when children experienced stress at work. This study confirms that caregiving is a stressful experience, regardless of the other co-occurring strains one is experiencing.
The demands of caregiving may hasten exits from paid employment, especially for older workers. This study uses data from five waves of the Understanding Society study in the United Kingdom and explores associations between informal caregiving and exits from paid employment. In general, full-time employees who were also caregivers were more likely to stop working, compared to those not providing care, with particularly pronounced patterns among women. Employers could help extend older employees’ working lives by recognizing and supporting their caregiving demands at home.
The demands placed on dementia caregivers are particularly daunting. This study uses data from the Daily Stress and Health (DASH) study to examine whether and how caregivers’ use of adult day services (ADS) affected their daily cortisol levels – an indicator of physiological responses to chronic stress. The study examined the typical diurnal cortisol trajectory and its differential associations with an intervention, the adult day services (ADS) use, among a sample of family caregivers who experienced high levels of daily stress. ADS use was associated with healthier cortisol profiles, suggesting the biophysiological benefits of daily ADS use for older caregivers under chronic stress and high levels of daily stress.
Featured Image credit: “A Flame from the Ashes” by Josh Appel. CC0 public domain via Unsplash.