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Easing the Burden of Spousal Caregiving

Heal
couple holding hands

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Feeling appreciated is the key to lowering stress, according to a new study.

Numerous studies have shown that caretaking depletes the immune system, and taxes the body both physically and mentally. It’s especially challenging caretaking a spouse. I’m thinking of a friend’s parents, for example, who have saved and saved for retirement, and now that they finally arrived that stage of life, the husband has dementia and the wife is taking care of him. So much for those golden years.      

There’s some small succor in a new study from the University of Buffalo. One of the study’s authors was an expert on generosity, empathy, and stress: researcher Michael Poulin, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology. His area of interest is, according to his U.B. page, “to examine the mechanisms by which individuals overlook the costs of helping valued others and to examine phenomena that can reduce the barriers to valuing others.”

In this study, which was published in Health Psychology, Poulin and his team of looked at spouses who were taking care of their partners with chronic pain. The caretakers were asked to keep track of their activity, such as assisting with bathing, as well as their emotions, in 3-hour chunks of time. Researchers looked at how much help was given, and how much this help pleased the affected spouse, and how that pleasure made the caregiver feel. In the second study, caregivers wrote in a journal at the end of the day. The spouses who felt their help was appreciated were happier and had fewer physical complaints than those who felt their help was not 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,” wrote Poulin. “These conclusions are important because we know that spousal caregiving is an enormous burden, emotionally, physically and economically,” he says. “If we can find ways for community resources to help create those conditions we might be able to make a difference in the lives of millions of people.”

As baby boomers continue to age, more and more people will be facing caretaking of a spouse. This study suggests that for them, and anyone else caretaking a partner, focusing on communication as a form of support is key.          


Kathryn Drury Wagner

Kathryn Drury Wagner is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles. She is the author of Hawaii’s Strangest, Ickiest, Wildest Book Ever!, a science and natural history “gross out” for young readers.  


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