A surprising study on caregivers
by Marcella Durand
There’s no doubt that long- term care of a loved one is difficult work. But a first-of-its-kind
study of 73 spousal caregivers led
by a researcher at the University
at Buffalo sought to look more
deeply into full-time caregiving.
There were some surprises.
“When people provided
‘active’ help, they were happier
than when they provided ‘passive’
help,” said psychologist Michael
J. Poulin, PhD, who led the
study, which was published in
Psychology and Aging (2010,
Vol. 25, No. 1). The study participants ranged in age from 35–89
Do we need to change what
is offered by respite care
living independently by health-care professionals. Active help
included cooking meals, toileting
assistance and grocery shopping.
Passive help included staying
nearby to ensure a spouse’s safety
or provide reassurance.
The researchers were not as
surprised by the positive effects
of active care, as they were by the
negative effects of passive care.
There’s a large body of
literature that says helping
makes people feel good, as a
and provided full-time care to
spouses with disabling conditions
such as Alzheimer’s, cancer and
stroke, but not MS. Researchers
controlled for mitigating factors,
such as level of illness and degree
To define active and passive
help, the researchers relied on a
list known as “activities of daily
living” or “instrumental activities
of daily living,” which refers to
activities considered essential to
“There’s a large body of literature
that says helping makes people
feel good, as a simple fact,” Dr.
Poulin said. “But we weren’t
expecting that passive care would
be so stressful and draining.”
There’s a variety of possibilities
why. “For caregivers, it’s possible
that feelings about their loved
one’s health come to the fore dur-
ing passive care in a way they don’t
when they’re more active,” Dr.
Poulin said. In addition, passive
help may highlight what’s gone.
“Caregivers have also lost much of
their freedom—the ability to go to
the grocery store or socialize with
friends. That could come up when
they’re sitting there watching their
loved one, thinking, oh gosh, I
need to go out and get dinner,
when am I going to do that? It’s
thinking, what I would be doing if
I weren’t doing this?”
The results of the study could
impact planning for respite care.
“We should think about what
we’re providing caregivers respite
from,” said Dr. Poulin. “It’s usu-
ally easier to provide respite from
activities like cooking or bathing.
But if what’s more burdensome is
passive supervision, then people
need help with that instead.”
(Interestingly, and he points out,
counter-intuitively, “Most people
would rate assistance with toilet-
ing as something they don’t like
doing, but it generated greater
There was one more surprise
in the results: The more interdependent the couple felt, the
more like a care partnership, the
greater the positive emotions.
“People who felt they needed
their spouse as much as their
spouse needed them derived the
most benefits from active helping,” Dr. Poulin said. n
Marcella Durand is an associate editor of Momentum.