Caring for an elderly person for less than an hour can take a surprising emotional toll on older caregivers, according to a new study at the University of Michigan (U-M).

The findings show that caregivers 60 and older who provide “marginal” assistance — spending up to an hour helping often with just one activity — report poorer well-being than those who help two hours a day handling various activities, according to Vicki Freedman, research professor at the U-M Institute for Social Research.

The researchers say the finding is counterintuitive to conventional thinking which posits that caring for more hours would pose a greater psychological burden on family and other unpaid caregivers.

“It may be that these marginally involved caregivers find it harder to incorporate care into their busy lives,” Freedman said. “Or it could be those with worse well-being are less able to take on a more substantial caregiving role.”

Caregivers perform various tasks such as household chores (preparing meals, laundry), personal and medical care (bathing, dressing, giving medicine), companionship and transportation (running errands or trips to doctor’s office).

The U-M study is unique as it looks at what caregivers do and when in the day they do it, Freedman said. Unlike previous studies that track less detailed responses over longer periods, such as the past month, the new study uses 24-hour time diary data to explore if there are distinctive care patterns throughout the day impacting caregivers’ well-being.

The researchers looked at the caregivers’ levels of well-being during five distinct care patterns:

  • marginal involvement – less than one hour helping with one activity;
  • helping with a combination of care activities for around 2 hours;
  • more substantial amount of care, including household chores and transportation;
  • persistent care throughout day with transportation and companionship;
  • persistent care throughout the day with household chores.

The data came from the national Panel Study of Income Dynamics at U-M. The sample consisted of 511 diary days with at least one reported care activity from adults 60 and older.

For each activity on the previous day, participants reported details about what they did, including how long they did it. They also answered questions about how they felt (well-being) — calm, happy, sad, frustrated or worried — during randomly selected activities.

On average, older caregivers spent just over two hours helping on days they assisted adults with daily activities. The time of day was not as important as the type of care in shaping well-being, the researchers said.

Source: University of Michigan