BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Although long-term care of sick or disabled loved ones is widely recognized as a threat to the caregiver's health and quality of life, a new study led by University at Buffalo psychologist Michael Poulin, PhD, finds that in some contexts, helping valued loved ones may promote the well being of helpers.
"Does a Helping Hand Mean a Heavy Heart?," published in the journal Psychology and Aging (2010, Vol. 25., No. 1), reports on a study by Poulin and five co-authors from the University of Michigan Department of Internal Medicine, which closely analyzed helping behavior and well-being among 73 spousal caregivers, many of them elderly.
Poulin, an assistant professor of psychology, says the study team wanted to learn if there were some positive aspects of caregiving, aspects that did not provoke the burnout, high stress and poor health associated with being a caregiver. If so, they wanted to know why these aspects had a positive effect.
They learned that despite the burdensome nature of their role, caregivers experience more positive emotions and fewer negative emotions when they engage in "active care" like feeding, bathing, toileting and otherwise physically caring for the spouse.
"Our data don't tell us exactly what psychological processes are responsible," he says, "but we hypothesize that people may be hardwired so that actively attending to the concrete needs and feelings of others reduces our personal anxiety."
The study found that passive care, on the other hand, which requires the spouse to simply be nearby in case anything should go wrong, provokes negative emotions in the caretaker, and leads to fewer positive emotions.
The study involved 73 subjects (mean age was 71.5 years, age range was 35-89 years) who were 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 and/or being on call
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University at Buffalo