In the survey of middle-aged and older Americans,
husbands did not seem to experience any improvement in well-being
when they were acting in the role of caregiver for their wife.
"A lot of studies have focused on the burden of caregiving,
especially for women, so we expected to see worse well-being for
wives caring for a husband," Vicki Freedman told Reuters Health in
Freedman led the study at the Institute for Social Research at the
University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
"What we found was surprising — first, that older women report
greater happiness levels when providing care to their husbands than
when carrying out the same kinds of tasks as chores — and second,
that older women are no less happy when caring for their husbands
than they are doing other kinds of activities," Freedman said.
Using existing data from a 2009 phone survey of almost 400 married
couples over age 50, the researchers analyzed how individuals rated
assorted activities performed the previous day by the level of
happiness or frustration felt during the activity.
Participants were also asked about their spouse's level of
disability, if any, and the types of household chores like shopping,
cooking and cleaning they had performed the day before.
The researchers categorized tasks as either "chores" or activities
done to "care" for a spouse. And the reported well-being levels were
rated on a scale from 0 to 6, where 0 was not at all happy and 6 was
On average, caring for a husband was associated with about a third
of a point (0.35) of extra happiness above doing the same kinds of
activities as mere chores.
That's similar to the boost in happiness most people get from casual
socializing, Freedman said.
There may be positive aspects of caring for spouses, at least for
older wives, that offset the general unpleasantness of household
chores, the authors write in the Journals of Gerontology, Series B.
For husbands, neither their care duties nor their spouse's level of
disability was associated with a difference in reported well-being.
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As they age, men and women have different care
requirements, and the activities their caretakers usually do may
differ as well. That could explain the differing effects for men and
women while caring for spouses, Freedman said.
"For instance, women are more likely to prepare meals and do laundry
as part of caring for their husbands whereas men are more likely to
handle household repairs and financial matters when caring for their
wives," she said.
The results are intriguing but
don't give researchers any clues for improving the care experience,
Since the happiness measures came from only one day, Freedman noted,
it's not clear that caregiving leads to more happiness. Another
possibility is that happier spouses are willing to take on
caregiving, she said.
Social scientists are realizing more and more that people who care
for others need special attention themselves, Freedman said.
"Family and friends may be able to help provide some relief by
assisting with household chores like cleaning, cooking, and
laundry," she said. "A caregiver may then be freed up to spend more
time dedicated to care activities that he or she finds personally
fulfilling or to other enjoyable activities."
Journals of Gerontology, Series B, online Feb. 5, 2014.
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