April 19, 2022

Studies highlight the rewards and the challenges of caring for aging family and friends

Negative health impacts associated with caregiving for aging spouses, parents, and other adults are well documented, but new Faculty of Social Work studies provide a fuller picture, including positive outcomes
Photo of Dr. Yeonjung Lee
Yeonjung Lee challenges the exclusively "dismal" outcomes associated with family caregiving. Courtesy Yeonjung Lee

One need not look too hard, be it in academic journals or even the mainstream media, to get the sense that informal caregivers of aging or ailing parents, spouses, and friends face a tough road lined with stress, anxiety, depression, and few supports along the way.

But is the full picture as grim as much of the literature suggests? Not quite, says Faculty of Social Work associate professor Dr. Yeonjung Lee, PhD, who is also a member of the Hotchkiss Brain Institute and O’Brien Institute for Public Health at the Cumming School of Medicine.

“Caregivers are actually reporting that, ‘I feel rewarded, I feel like being I am being useful,’” says Lee about her own research results, which challenge the exclusively dismal view of caregiving.  

“There’s a voice saying that caregivers have positive experiences. Of course, they’re also stressed [and] there are negative outcomes. But both exist, which has never been highlighted — it’s been kind of hidden. I wanted to say more about that, especially since almost nothing has been done in terms of quantitative research using a large national data in terms of positive outcomes.”

Lee’s findings are delineated over two papers based on research funded by a SSHRC Insight Development Grant. The first of these, Psychological Well-Being Among Informal Caregivers in the Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging: Why the Location of Care Matters, published in the Journals of Gerontology: Series B (December 2020) demonstrates that a hoary real estate maxim — location, location, location — applies just as much regarding the quality of life of informal caregivers.

Analyzing depression and life satisfaction from a nationally representative Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging, first comparing non-caregivers to a combined caregiver group and then stratifying caregivers by the primary location of care, Lee’s team turned up some interesting data. While in-home caregivers understandably bore the brunt of negative mental health outcomes, individuals who maintained a separate residence from those in their care did not differ significantly in levels of depression from non-caregivers and actually reported higher life satisfaction

The second paper, Mental Health Benefits and Detriments of Caregiving Demands: A Nonlinear Association in the Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging, which is pending publication, takes other factors into account, such as the level of demand on the caregiver and their marital status.

In doing so, Lee reveals that the act of caregiving itself isn’t necessarily detrimental, but that its effect on mental health — positive or negative — depends on the extent of the demands placed upon an individual in that role as well as “familial relationships in which caregivers are embedded” (in this context, married individuals reported better mental health outcomes than the non-married).

“We are not really downplaying the negative aspects of caregiving,” Lee clarifies. “We acknowledge that, and it should be highlighted. But we are adding new evidence, and, since there are empirically positive outcomes, we need to provide a different approach in terms of providing support for caregivers. We need to know how we can bolster that positive aspects and, at the same time, try to support caregivers struggling with the negative aspect.

On Thursday, April 28 at noon, Lee will present her research in greater detail and lead a discussion during the online webinar, Opportunities and Challenges in Caring for Older Adults. The event is free and all are welcome to attend.

Yeonjung Lee is an associate professor in the Faculty of Social Work, and is also a member of the Hotchkiss Brain Institute and O’Brien Institute for Public Health at the Cumming School of Medicine.