Caring for Ill or Disabled Family Member Adversely Affects Emotional Health

SUMMARY: Study shows caring for an ill or disabled family member in the home causes emotional distress to increase and accumulate over time. Physical health is also affected to a lesser extent.

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Caring for an ill or disabled family member in the home causes emotional distress to increase and accumulate, according to a study published by Indiana University researchers in the March issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior. The study found that physical health was also affected, but to a lesser extent.

Eliza Pavalko, IU professor of sociology, and Shari Woodbury, a graduate student and research assistant, studied data collected over a two-year period from nearly 3,000 women between the ages of 50 and 65. The scientists looked at two variables: how health changes during different stages of involvement in the ongoing role of caring for an ill or disabled family member inside the home, and whether health effects of care-giving vary depending on employment.

“At least half of American women will care for a disabled family member during their lifetime. Our findings provide new information about the health effects of care-giving and have broader implications for understanding how women’s involvement in multiple roles affects their health and well being,” said Pavalko. “These findings also suggest caution for those considering policy changes that would increase the responsibility of family members and reduce formal support for care.”

Emotional distress appears to increase as years spent care-giving increase. New care givers reported only slightly higher levels of distress than non-care-givers, and long-term care-givers reported the highest levels of distress. Measures of emotional distress included how often study participants felt happy or sad, had restless sleep, or had crying spells.

Contrary to their expectations, the researchers did not find a similar accumulation of physical limitations over the care-giving period. Instead, the moderate increases in physical limitations seen among care-givers in the early stages leveled off with longer periods of care.

This finding suggests that women may adapt physically to care giving over time. Measures of physical limitations included difficulty standing, stooping, lifting objects, sitting, walking, and using stairs.

Although the impact of care-giving on physical health was less pronounced than that on emotional health, the researchers found that physical health problems were more likely to necessitate finding replacement sources for care. By contrast, increasing levels of psychological distress do not appear to prompt women to give up their care-giving responsibilities, according to the researchers.

Employed women were the least likely to experience physical limitations as a result of care-giving, which suggests that certain characteristics of this group distinguish it from others. “They may have resources from work or home that allow them to gain benefits from both roles,” Pavalko said.

The National Institute on Aging, the National Institute of Mental Health, and the Indiana University Center for Aging Research supported this research.

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