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Why Family Caregivers Live Longer

Sarah Stevenson
By Sarah StevensonNovember 5, 2013

It’s National Family Caregivers Month — the perfect time to appreciate the hard work of our caregivers. But there are rewards to caregiving, too: family caregivers live longer.

Plenty of studies have shown us how caring for an elderly loved one can lead to stress, exhaustion, and even illness in family caregivers, particularly if that family member has dementia. But that’s not the full story. Studies also indicate that, on the whole, family caregivers live longer than non-caregivers. Why is that? When conventional wisdom and scientific research report a high rate of stress-related illness in many caregivers — particularly those caring for a loved one with dementia — how is it possible that caregiving can actually extend your life?

Studies Show Caregivers Live Longer

The truth is, there are rewards to caregiving as well as stresses, and those rewards can be life-affirming, even if the day-to-day work of being a caregiver feels like a bit of a slog sometimes.

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In fact, studies on caregivers are not as cut-and-dried as you might think. A recent study reported in the American Journal of Epidemiology found that caregivers were 18 percent less likely to die than non-caregivers over a 6-year period.

This confirms the results of an earlier 2010 study in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society in which caregivers had lower mortality rates over an 8-year period, despite stress levels.

The Hidden Rewards of Caregiving

Sometimes caregiving causes harmful stress, but the very demands of the job — physical and mental — also seem to confer benefits, requiring people to stay physically active and mentally focused, notes an article in the New York Times. It can also make you feel good about yourself, giving back to your parents and, perhaps, forming a new, healthier relationship than the one you had in the past.

“There are people who find caregiving very rewarding,” says Leah Eskinazi, director of operations for the Family Caregiver Alliance, in a recent NPR report. “They feel really good that they can give back to Mom, for example, because Mom was really there for them when they were growing up. Maybe they weren’t the best kid, but as they’ve aged they can have a more balanced healthier relationship and heal some of those wounds.”

Caregiver Tips for Beating Stress

Focusing on the rewarding aspects of caregiving can also help you beat caregiver stress. We’ve compiled a short list of tips for getting in touch with positive emotions and fighting stress, gathered from Today’s Caregiver magazine and the Family Caregiver Alliance:

  • Learn to recognize warning signs of stress and frustration, whether it’s losing patience more quickly or physical symptoms such as headaches or fatigue.
  • Practice physical and mental relaxation techniques: exercising, meditating, listening to music, or whatever works for you. Take time for yourself.
  • Rethink a difficult situation objectively, so you can avoid unhelpful thought patterns that may be causing more frustration. (Read more detailed tips from Family Caregiver Alliance.)
  • Find your “why” and remind yourself of it: “A daily reminder of why you are caregiving will help anchor you and help you realize your own reward,” says Today’s Caregiver. Whether it’s a photo of your loved one or an affirmation to yourself, it can help keep your relationship hopeful, healthy, and positive.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Family members and friends may be willing to assist with caregiving duties or household chores, or simply provide a sympathetic ear. Sharing your feelings with a counselor, spiritual advisor, or support group can also be extraordinarily valuable.

How do you beat caregiver stress? Share your suggestions with us in the comments below.

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