Caring for a spouse tied to older women's wellbeing

NEW YORK - Doing chores and errands in the course of caring for a disabled husband makes older women a bit happier than just doing housework for its own sake, a new study finds.

In the survey of middle-aged and older Americans, husbands did not seem to experience any improvement in wellbeing 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 wellbeing for wives caring for a husband," Vicki Freedman told Reuters Health in an email.

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 analysed 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 wellbeing levels were rated on a scale from 0 to 6, where 0 was not at all happy and 6 was very happy.

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 wellbeing.

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, she said.

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."