Family caregiving can lessen depression, study finds

Despite increased levels of stress and trauma associated with caring for an ailing loved one, a new study suggests that family caregiving can lead to less depression in adults.

Published in the journal Advances in Life Course Research, the research, which was conducted at the University of Texas in Austin, sought to challenge previous notions that caregiving can lead to declines in mental health and general wellbeing.

“Decades of research on this topic indicate that there are positive and negative aspects to being a caregiver,” said study author Sae Hwang Han, an assistant professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Sciences, in a press release from the University of Texas.

“It’s widely assumed the negatives far outweigh the positives, that caregiving is a chronic stressor and that it contributes to worse health and well-being. But the evidence doesn’t always bear that out.”

While previous studies start by identifying caregivers and comparing their well-being to non-caregivers, Han says prior findings don’t account for the fact that caregiving is often initiated by a “depressing event,” such as a diagnosis, a tragic accident, or a general decline in a loved one’s well being.

“It’s unsurprising that these studies would find a heightened risk of depression in caregivers compared to non-caregivers, who often do not have serious health problems in the family,” Han explained. “That’s a misleading comparison, just as it would be misleading to compare the well-being of someone going through chemotherapy to someone who doesn’t have cancer.”

Han and fellow researchers with the University of Texas at Austin assessed a group of adults over the age of 50 who had a living mother. As some of their mothers became cognitively impaired or generally disabled with age, researchers tracked the mental health of these adults who now shouldered the responsibility of caregiving. Although researchers found a clear correlation between adult children becoming more depressed as the health of their mothers deteriorated, there was no evidence that suggested the process of caregiving itself worsened or instigated a decline in mental health.

In fact, researchers found the opposite.

According to surveys, caregiving “alleviated the extent to which adult children became depressed in response to their mothers’ health problems, suggesting that there may be something protective about being able to help others we care about,” Han explained in the release.

The study says that caregiving offers an opportunity for a “fundamental human experience,” fostering qualities such as empathy, responsibility, and connection for caregivers.

Despite outlined benefits that could be drawn from the experience of caregiving, the study also calls on furthering policies that meet the needs of caregivers.

The study, which was supported by U.S. agencies the Center on Aging and Population Sciences and the National Institute on Aging, intends to debunk some of the misconceptions that caregiving is merely a “source of dread,” said Han.

“There is no disputing that caregiving can be a very stressful experience,” he said. “But some stressful experiences also make you more resilient and help you grow.”

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