New study shows that caring for a sick relative can IMPROVE your health

Being a carer for a sick or disabled relative is acknowledged to be a stressful role that can cause ill-health.

But a study has concluded that helping loved ones can sometimes promote the health of the helpers.

A team of researchers led by psychologist Dr Michael Poulin, of the University of Buffalo, analysed helping behaviour and well-being among 73 spousal carers.

Dr Poulin found that carers experience more positive emotions and fewer negative emotions when they engage in ‘active care’ like feeding, bathing, toileting and general physical caring for the spouse.

But the study found that passive care  -  which requires the spouse to simply be nearby in case anything should go wrong  -  provokes negative emotions in the carer and leads to fewer positive emotions.

Dr Poulin said: ‘Our data doesn’t tell us exactly what psychological processes are responsible, but we hypothesise that people may be hardwired so that actively attending to the concrete needs and feelings of others reduces our personal anxiety.’

The study involved 73 subjects, aged from 35 to 89 with an average of 71.5, providing full-time home care to an ailing spouse. Participants carried Palm Pilots that beeped randomly to signal them to report how much time they had spent actively helping or being on call since the last beep, the activities they engaged in and their emotional state.

The researchers found that age had no moderating effects on the association between caring and well-being.

One variable that did affect outcome was the level of perceived interdependence  -  the extent to which carers viewed themselves as sharing a mutually beneficial relationship.

In these cases, said Dr Poulin, ‘the positive effects of active care were particularly strong’.

Dr Poulin added: ‘Overall, we wouldn’t say that caring for an ailing loved one is going to be good for you or healthy for you, but certain activities may be beneficial, especially in high-quality relationships.’

Governments come under pressure to provide respite for carers. However, Dr Poulin said: ‘As this study demonstrates, it is extremely important that caretakers receive the right kind of relief at the right time  -  perhaps less time off from active care duties, and more time off from the onerous task of passively monitoring an ailing loved one.’

The study was published in the journal Psychology and Aging.