A new study from the United Kingdom confirms how physically and emotionally exhausting caregiving can be.
A Nov. 14 report published in Lancet Public Health 2023 noted, “The health of unpaid caregivers is poorer, on average, than in non-caregivers. There has been little focus on how health changes when becoming a caregiver and whether this varies by age, gender, and caregiving intensity. We aimed to investigate the mental and physical health changes involved with becoming a caregiver and whether these associations varied by gender, caregiving intensity, or age.”
Identifying At-Risk Caregivers
The study’s authors — Rebecca E Lacey, Baowen Xue, Giorgio Di Gessa, Wentian Lu, and Anne McMunn — used data from the UK Household Longitudinal Study from 2009 through 2020 and looked for “mental and physical health changes around the transition to becoming a caregiver in adults aged 16 years and older.” The study yielded sample sizes ranging from 3,025 younger adults to 5,785 middle-aged adults.
The researchers found higher levels of stress for all study participants who were beginning to perform caregiving tasks. The psychological stress was particularly high for caregivers under age 64, for those performing 20 or more hours of caregiving work per week, and for those living in the same household as the person or people being cared for.
The Lancet report quoted a United Nations estimate that 75 to 90 percent of care needs are performed by unpaid caregivers.
“Few studies have considered changes in health around the transition to becoming a caregiver,” the Lancet-published report said. “This investigation is important, as it enables us to assess how soon after becoming a caregiver health might be affected, and whether health starts to worsen when individuals transition into caregiving.”
The Research, Interpreted
Researchers noted different phases of caregiving: In stage one, for example, a caregiver is providing care, but does not self identify as a caregiver. But in the second stage, the caregiver “acknowledges that their activities go beyond the usual familial role, and self-identify as a caregiver.”
Researchers suggested caregivers’ health might begin to suffer early in the process, possibly before a caregiver even self-identifies as one.
And researchers concluded that identifying and supporting caregivers early in the process is important, especially for younger caregivers: “Although most research has focused on caregiving in mid-life and beyond, evidence has suggested that when people become caregivers, their health is likely to be influenced. … It is likely that becoming a caregiver in earlier stages of adulthood, when it is less normative, is associated with poorer health than in older age.
“This is important to break the cycle of caregiving and future care need. Health services staff, including general practitioners and hospital discharge teams, are well positioned for early identification of caregivers. We also encourage particular support for the mental health of caregivers and particularly those who become caregivers at a younger age.”
That support, study results suggested, could include more timely identification of caregivers so they can receive support that could prevent mental health harm. “An individual’s status as a caregiver should be noted on their health record, as is now the case in UK primary care,” the study said. “This can help remind and facilitate health practitioners to have conversations about the health of caregivers and whether they are coping with their responsibilities.
“This could help break the cycle of caregiving and future care need.”