More MS news articles for Mar 2002

Study shows there are rewards to the often stressful job of being an unpaid caregiver

Wednesday March 13 11:01 AM EST

TORONTO (CP) - For Dennis McHugh, helping his wife Deanna with just about everything is less stressful than letting someone else take care of her.

"I get her out of bed in the morning, dress her, and help her with all the daily things that have to be done," says McHugh, adding that he sees no down sides to being with his wife "for better or for worse."

McHugh, a retired caretaker living near Ferintosh southeast of Edmonton, says his 61-year-old wife, who has multiple sclerosis, has been in a wheelchair for almost 20 years. They have been married for 37 years.

It's easy to lose sight of the benefits of caring for an older relative or friend, especially when studies indicate high rates of mental and physical health risks among non-paid caregivers.

But McHugh, 63, is proof there are also positive aspects to catering to the needs of someone near and dear to you. And a recent study, McHugh wasn't part of it, has also found that caregiving reaps many benefits.

Companionship, fulfilment, enjoyment, the satisfaction of meeting an obligation and helping to improve someone's quality of life are among the many up sides, says the study done by Dr. Carole Cohen, Angela Colantonio and Lee Vernich of the University of Toronto.

The study, published in February's International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, helps "round out" the caregiver experience, Cohen said in an interview.

"The satisfactions or positive aspects of caregiving may be as helpful as understanding the caregiving experience as the negative effects," concludes the study.

"There's been a lot written about the negative aspects like caregiver burnout and depression, and those are public health issues, but there are obviously other aspects of caregiving, otherwise people wouldn't do it," said Cohen, a psychiatrist at Sunnybrook Women's College Health Sciences Centre.

The research involved 289 caregivers from across Canada. The sample was taken from a Health Canada-funded study of health and aging in the 1990s. The average age of the caregivers was 64, the average age of those being cared for was 84.

Of the 289, 210 could identify at least one positive aspect of caregiving, while 20 identified more than one.

The study is significant because with the population aging it's likely more adults will be called upon to look after an elderly parent or family member.

In fact, Statistics Canada says 2.1 million Canadians are already caring for older relatives either in their own home or a seniors' home. The age of primary caregivers is between 52 and 84.

Focusing on the bright side of overseeing the needs of a loved one can help put the strains of caregiving - which can result in stress, and health, sleep and relationship problems - in perspective, says Cohen.

Sixty to 75 per cent of eldercare in Canada is being provided by women, says Health Canada's Guide to End-of-Life Care for Seniors, making McHugh something of an exception.

Cohen's study found 70 per cent of her subjects were women, but it doesn't examine whether women and men derive different benefits from caregiving. That can serve as a starting point for another study.

In the meantime, Cohen's research acts as motivation for doctors, social workers and others in outreach programs to ask caregivers what fulfilment they get out of their role.

Caregivers who see no benefits may be at higher risk for problems like depression, increasing the likelihood that the people they're caring for will be institutionalized, says Cohen.

Getting them help quickly is key. That may mean providing someone for them to talk to, or to relieve them so they can have more personal time.

Copyright © 2000 Canadian Press