The U.S. population is aging and many spouses and adult children find themselves taking on the role of family caregiver for senior loved ones. While it’s critical that the necessary resources are put in place to care for this aging population, new research suggests that it’s equally important to consider the needs of family caregivers too.
As a provider of in-home care for seniors and other adults needing care, Comfort Keepers® is deeply invested in the well-being of seniors and their family caregivers, providing much needed help for those that find themselves overwhelmed, at times, by the demands of caring for their loved ones. That’s why we were excited to be approached to play a role in the creation of the research study, Age and Emotional Well-being: The Varied Emotional Experience of Family Caregivers. Conceived, conducted and led by the Stanford Center on Longevity and Stanford University Psychology Department, the study relied on executional help from Comfort Keepers and Clear Care, a home care software services company. Together, we sought to quantify the impact that acting as a caregiver has on family caregivers’ well-being. What we found is that, combined with prior research and the emerging growth of the elderly population, it’s important for society to consider not only the welfare of that growing population of elderly who will need help, but also those who will be caring for the elderly.
A Demographic Shift
The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that there were more than 46 million Americans 65 or older in 2016. With the aging of the baby boomer generation, those ranks will swell, doubling to over 98 million by the year 2060, making up nearly a quarter of the U.S. population from 15 percent today. Meanwhile, AARP estimates that 39.8 million Americans provided unpaid care to an adult in 2014 and 2015, with nearly half of those caregivers looking after someone who was 75 or older. Additionally, 10 percent of those caregivers were looking after a spouse, and one-in 10 were 75 or older themselves.
Combined, this information establishes not only that the U.S. population is graying fast, but that more Americans will soon be taking on the role of caregiver – and why wouldn’t they? The act of caregiving is foundational to human existence. We are hard wired to do whatever we can for the people we love most, whether we are parents or children, relatives or friends. When thinking back on life, few would argue that caring for others wasn’t the most emotionally satisfying portions of their life.
A Demanding Job
And yet, being a caregiver can take a toll. Bathing and dressing a senior, cooking for them, keeping track of their prescriptions, finances and medical appointments, helping them move without falling – these are just some of the tasks that caregivers take on every day. For many, these tasks can be accomplished over a few hours each day, around mealtimes or as they tend to other tasks. But for a significant and growing portion, being a caregiver becomes a 24/7 job that comes with few, if any breaks.
The Age and Emotional Well-being study reveals just what kind of toll those tasks can take on caregivers. Specifically, it sheds light on the difference between the emotional health of caregivers when they are caring for a loved one with a mild illness, versus a loved one with a severe illness.
For older adults, the study found that caring for a loved one with a mild illness generally leaves them in the same emotional state as their peers – with an emotional well-being generally greater than that of younger adults. But when responsible for a loved one with a severe illness, it’s a different story. The study found that their reported emotional well-being tended to be lower than those of their peers. The cause was not due to their loved one’s condition, but rather the caregiver’s inability to pursue their social goals and friendships.
Research has clearly established that that social bonds play a large role in seniors’ well-being. In fact, it’s those established, life-long connections to friends and community that make aging in the home so much more emotionally beneficial than living in a group-home setting. Imagine, then, what happens when you are denied your social connections because of responsibilities to care for a severely ill loved one – feelings of resentment, guilt, doubt, depression.
As a collaborator in this research study, we reached out to the family members and decision-makers of approximately 2,000 Comfort Keepers clients to request they participate in the study. When we relayed the nature of the questions that would be asked, not only did many agree to be in the survey, but several replied with gratitude, thanking us for simply acknowledging the difficulty that family caregivers face. “Thank you for looking into this,” said one. “Thank you for asking the question,” said another.
What was particularly exciting was the collaboration of three different organizations – Comfort Keepers, Clear Care, and the Stanford Center on Longevity/Stanford University Psychology Department, all trying to understand and solve for the challenges of family caregivers who are charged with the responsibility of decision-making and caring for seniors. The success of this study gives us at Comfort Keepers hope that more and similar research will be conducted in the future that can help society meet the challenges of a changing population. In the meantime, we will continue to be there with help for the family caregiver and their senior loved one.
As quantified by the survey and qualified in our interactions, family caregivers are at risk of being overwhelmed by the responsibilities they face. As their ranks grow, it’s critical that we understand their position and find solutions that can help them look after their own emotional well-being. Only by helping them will we be able to help the seniors they care for.
 Caregiving in the U.S., 2015 Report; AARP – http://www.aarp.org/content/dam/aarp/ppi/2015/caregiving-in-the-united-states-2015-report-revised.pdf
 Carstensen, L. L., Turan, B., Scheibe, S., Ram, N., Ersner-Hershfield, H., Samanez-Larkin, G. R., … & Nesselroade, J. R. (2011). Emotional experience improves with age: evidence based on over 10 years of experience sampling. Psychology and Aging, 26(1), 21.