Professor Athina Vlachantoni is Director of the SCDTP, and based in the Department of Gerontology, University of Southampton.
Is caring bad for you?
Look around you. One-in-three persons will provide care to someone else at some point of their life. Caring is becoming more and more common as a life experience, as a result of the combination of increasing life expectancy and declining fertility. Providing care can be a rewarding experience, strengthening the bond between the carer and the person they care for, and indirectly improving the carer’s wellbeing through a sense of satisfaction and fulfilment. At the same time, however, caring can result in adverse health outcomes for the carer, both physically and mentally.
Against the background of an ageing population, an important and policy-relevant question arises: is the provision of care good or bad for the carer’s health? If it is good, then we are headed in the right direction, and more people should be encouraged and supported by the government, to provide care. If not, then the question from a social policy perspective is whether and how we can mitigate any negative effects on the carer.
Unfortunately, like many social science research questions, the reality is more complex, and the answer to these questions is not black or white.
Through research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council in the Centre for Population Change, our research team tried to unravel this complexity. We reviewed existing research, and came across perspectives which seemed contradictory, until one examined the detail in the analysis. Cross-sectional research (for example see here) showed that non-carers were more likely to report good health than carers, implying that caring is bad for one’s health. By contrast, longitudinal research (such as this example) showed that caregivers had lower mortality risks than non-caregivers, but that this depended on the characteristics of the care provision (e.g. the duration overall, the intensity of the care and the relationship between the carer and the person cared for).
Our own research using longitudinal analysis showed a similar finding: we used data on England & Wales from the UK Census in 2001 and 2011, and we found that starting or continuing to provide care of up to 19 hours per week between 2001-2011 was linked to a lower risk of poor health, than not caring at either time point. We also found that those who provided care for 20+ hours per week in 2001, but did not do so in 2011, were more likely to report poor health than non-carers.
There were limitations in this research, not least the 10-year gap between the two measurement points. However, our research confirmed the nuances of examining whether care provision is good or bad for the carer: the characteristics of the care itself, such as its duration and intensity, are important factors to take into account. The policy message from this research is also clear: thinking about the carer’s wellbeing is as important as thinking about the wellbeing of the person in need of care.