Gender and family relationships affect caregiver strain

For both men and women, caring for a sick or disabled spouse or child is more stressful than caring for a parent, according to a new study from Canada.

Caregiving can be difficult, but little is known about whether it's harder on women or men, or depends on the nature of the relationship between the recipient and the giver of care, the researchers wrote in The Gerontologist, online April 17.

For instance, caring for a spouse or a child may be more intensive than caring for a parent, lead author Margaret J. Penning of the sociology department at the University of Victoria told Reuters Health by email.

"Although women tend to experience greater caregiving burden than men, our findings suggest that female caregivers not only have similar levels of mental health as male caregivers, there are also few or no gender differences in how caregiving relationship affects mental health," she said.

Using a 2007 national survey in Canada, the study team identified more than 6,000 adults age 45 and older who had provided unpaid assistance to a person with a long-term health condition or physical limitation within the previous year.

Respondents rated their own stress levels and mental health on separate five-point scales.

More than half of the caregivers were women, and more than a third reported caring for a parent. About one in four people provided care to a non-family member like a friend or neighbour.

Almost 17 per cent said they cared for another family member, while 10 per cent indicated spouses, almost 6 per cent said siblings and another 6 per cent reported caring for children.

One in five people said they were the primary caregiver for the individual they assisted.

Women reported higher stress levels than men for all caregiving relationships, and stress was highest when caring for a spouse, followed by children and parents. Still, women and men both reported fairly good mental health, the researchers note.

Younger, employed people who were primary caregivers reported higher levels of stress than older, retired caregivers.

Things that may be helpful for caregivers, Penning said, include planning ahead, seeking information on caregiving and the specific illness involved, accepting your feelings, attending to your own needs and seeking support from others.

"There are various resources available to assist caregivers in most communities," she said.

Some employers have also started to introduce workplace policies like allowing caregiver leaves and flexible hours as one way to mitigate the impact that caregiving can have on workers, she said.

In another paper in the same issue of the journal, US researchers explored what specific support middle-aged adults provide to other generations of family members on a daily basis, focusing not just on serious illness but any kind of supportive interactions.

Daily intergenerational support given to both grown children and parents was common, the researchers found, but caring for a grown child was tied to a positive mood while caring for a parent was tied to negative mood.

"In Western countries, support typically flows downstream from parents to grown children - and when that flow is disrupted, both parties may be uncomfortable," lead author Karen L. Fingerman of the University of Texas at Austin told Reuters Health by email.

In most families in the US, parents do typically help grown children, and the pattern only reverses when an older parent faces health problems or another life crisis, she said.

Penning's study focused on people who needed intensive practical help, which was tied to stress, while Fingerman's study focused on everyday, mundane help, which generally seemed to improve mood, Fingerman noted.

"Giving help to a family member who has incurred health problems can be taxing for the help provider - both due to time demands and the strain of having a loved one suffering health problems," she said.