By Liz O'Donnell
We all know that caregiving can be stressful and full of challenges. There are thousands of articles, plenty of books, plus support groups in communities across the country that discuss the challenges of taking care of a sick or aging family member or friend. But what isn't discussed often enough is the fact that caregiving can actually be good for you - emotionally, spiritually, and even physically. Researchers have identified something they call the caregiver's gain - the very real health benefits that come from caring for someone else.
Lucky for busy caregivers, it is relatively simple to access this gain. For starters, simply being aware that there is an upside to caregiving can put you in a better position to realize the benefits. That's because when we know that caregiving can actually benefit us, we're more likely to accept our role and responsibilities as a caregiver and take charge of the situation. Research from the Department of Health and Human Services suggests people who take an active, problem-solving approach to caregiving are less likely to feel stressed than those who worry or feel helpless. Second, having the right support and resources can also help you achieve the gain. Asking for and receiving help from friends, siblings, and medical professionals greatly affect how we feel about our caregiver experience. And finally, and simplest of all, merely performing the day-to-day tasks of caring for another person, helps you reap the health benefits.
Here are 5 surprising ways caregiving can actually make you healthier.
- Better cognitive functioning. Researchers compared the cognitive ability of caregivers versus noncaregivers and found those who had cared for someone else had better memory performance and processing speed, which is the time it takes to complete mental tasks. In fact, the caregivers scored at a level 10 years younger than their own age. While no one is exactly sure why caregivers realize a boost to their cognitive function, some speculate it could be the result of the many details caregivers have to manage, like sorting medications, managing finances, and scheduling appointments.
- Enhanced self-esteem. Many caregivers report they feel enhanced self-esteem due to the gratitude they receive from their care recipients. In turn, these positive feelings help them deal with stress and bounce back quickly from setbacks.
- Greater physical strength. As emotional as caregiving can be, it can also be quite physical. And apparently, all of that physical exertion - from helping family members transfer from beds to wheelchairs, or assisting them with dressing and bathing - pays off. Caregivers tend to perform better on physical exams that measure walking pace and grip strength, and the ease at which they can go from a seated to standing position. This in turns helps caregivers stay both physically and mentally healthy as they grow older.
- Strong connections. One of the greatest benefits of caregiving is developing deep, meaningful relationships with a care recipient - relationships that, it turns out, are good for your health. There is a whole host of research that shows the correlation between healthy relationships and physical well-being. Many scientists believe the benefits of having a positive, personal connection with another person are as valuable as getting plenty of sleep and eating a healthy, balanced diet.
- Longer lives. And finally, caregivers have been shown to have reduced mortality rates as compared to noncaregivers, proving just how powerful the benefits of caregiving can be.
So often, we think of caregiving as something that takes things away from us - it takes our free time, our sleep, our peace of mind, our ability to concentrate at work. It takes away time we could spend with our children or partners or time we could go to the gym - but caregiving gives back to us too. Yes, we feel stressed. Yes, we feel tired. Sometimes we fall into bed at the end of the day feeling mentally drained and physically exhausted. But know this: the caring you are doing today will only make you stronger in the future.
Liz O'Donnell is an author, speaker and award-wining blogger who helps women balance and blend their personal and professional lives. Liz's book Mogul, Mom & Maid: The Balancing Act of the Modern Woman
, and her website Working Daughter
, are lifelines for women balancing family and career. Join Working Daughter's mailing list
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. Permission granted for use on DrLaura.com.