The Long-Term Effects of Caregiving on Women’s Health and Mortality

Findings show that women’s caregiving experiences at midlife do have long-term health consequences as they enter old age. More specifically, both parental and spousal in-home caregivers have more depressive symptoms, and parental caregivers also have more functional limitations than non-caregivers.

While there are negative health effects for co-residential spousal and parental caregivers, there are no such negative effects for out-of-home caregivers, who actually experience lower mortality rates than non-caregivers. This finding suggests that the puzzling pattern in prior work that caregivers have more health problems but lower mortality is at least partially attributable to heterogeneity in the caregiving experience. Out-of-home caregivers have lower mortality risk even when controlling health, social engagement, and family ties before caregiving—factors that may select women into out-of-home care experiences but also decrease mortality.


It is important to note a limitation to this finding; while in-home caregivers were asked whether they had “sole responsibility” for someone ill in their homes, out-of-home caregivers were asked if they “regularly spent time” caring for someone ill outside of their home, which may encompass an even broader and potentially less stressful range of caregiving activities. It is of course possible that women who become non-co-residential caregivers share other qualities that contribute to lower mortality risk, such as personal resources like self-esteem and mastery. However, it is also important to consider the possibility that this type of caregiving has real benefits for mortality. Perhaps because out-of-home caregiving is less stressful than in-home caregiving, out-of-home caregivers are better able to reap the benefits of caregiving. We also find that the health effects of in-home caregiving vary by care recipient; while both parental and spousal in-home caregivers experience negative health effects, these effects do not appear to extend to those who provide in-home care for some other loved one.

While there are independent long-term health consequences to losing a spouse or parent, these losses do not explain the negative relationship between co-residential spousal and parental caregiving and health among the women in this study. The negative health effects of these caregiving experiences are not simply attributable to the stress of losing a loved one.




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