The loving care we receive, and give, lets us meet the inherent challenges of the human condition. It also can help us lead healthier, more fulfilling lives. That is the message that more of us ought to be receiving and celebrating this holiday season.
We often hear about the downsides of caregiving. That it can be extremely stressful, particularly for older caregivers with their own health problems. Financial strain, social isolation and challenges of balancing work and other responsibilities can come at many ages. Having policy solutions in place and resources to bolster caregivers against chronic stressors matters for this very reason.
But the underreported story of our time may be that there are also significant benefits to caregiving. Most Americans think that caregiving for a beloved aging family member in their lives would probably come at the expense of their own health. In reality, the news is better than that. Growing evidence suggests that caregiving actually can be good for your health.
Studies during the past decade have consistently shown that caregivers reap robust health benefits, including having reduced mortality risk. This finding has now been replicated across many national samples. It has even held true for those caring for dementia patients under high-stress conditions.
One explanation is that caring for a loved one in need helps to alleviate the stress a person naturally experiences from the knowledge that a close family member developed a serious health problem. After all, any family caregiver’s choice is not between whether to have a loved one need help or not. The choice instead is whether to be involved in providing that help directly. More and more studies have found that doing so offers its own rewards.
My recent study is among those that back this possible explanation. It found that when aging mothers developed serious health conditions, their adult children reported fewer symptoms of depression when they were the ones providing caregiving compared with when they were not. Another study, focusing on caregiving among married couples, had similar findings. All of this is in keeping with many first-hand reports from caregivers themselves. In national polls, caregivers consistently endorse positive aspects of caregiving more frequently than they complain about the negative ones.
None of this is meant to suggest that caregiving is easy. Taking care of an aging family member remains one of the more challenging tasks many people face in their lifetimes. But caring for young children is similarly challenging, with far fewer people accounting only for the stressful parts of the job. The rewards of caring for children consistently get noticed. So why not notice, too, caregiving’s overall rewards?
About 1 in 5 Americans currently provide care for someone, in most cases an adult with health and functional needs, but many find a deep sense of meaning and purpose in every type of caregiving. This fundamental human experience surrounding the loving care we receive or give helps us meet the inherent challenges of the human condition and promote resilience, both in the person who needs care and in the caregiver. It should be no surprise, then, that care like this helps us as individuals to lead healthier, more fulfilling lives.
The holidays offer many reminders to celebrate and appreciate caregivers. They also bring families together to discuss their anticipation or plans for potential caregiver responsibilities down the road. More of us should learn to approach these conversations with a realistic accounting — both of what we expect to be challenging and what may be gratifying in any caregiving among our loved ones ahead.
We can raise a glass to each other’s health and well-being — and to the family caregiving that enables them both.
Sae Hwang Han is an assistant professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Sciences at The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the San Antonio Express News.