Protection from the stress of being a long-term carer

Chronic disease doesn't just affect the person suffering from the illness, it can also be hugely stressful for their partner whose role becomes one of long-term carer. A key factor that can protect carers against the stress involved, according to Hoda Badr and colleagues, is for them to perceive their relationship with their ill spouse as an entity in itself, rather than seeing only two individuals.

Ninety-two people who cared for a chronically ill husband or wife answered questions about their mental health, the stress they experienced, and how they viewed their relationship. The participants' partners had been ill an average of six years, with 24 per cent suffering from cancer and 11 per cent suffering heart disease.

Those participants who said being ‘part of a couple’ was central to the way they saw themselves, appeared to be protected from the effects of stressors such as: loss of companionship, feeling unable to cope, and wishing they were free to run away. That is, among these participants with a strong 'couple identity', such stressors appeared to have a far weaker effect on their mental health. Moreover, feeling part of a couple appeared to accentuate the positive aspects of being a carer, such as having high self-esteem and feeling competent.

“Viewing the relationship as an extension of oneself may help foster a positive mindset about the caregiving experience. This in turn may help to minimize the association between the negative aspects of caregiving and poor mental health and maximize the mental health benefits of positive caregiving experiences”, the researchers concluded. However, a weakness of the study, acknowledged by the researchers, is its cross-sectional design – it's possible the carers' response to stress affected how they saw their relationship.

Badr, H., Acitelli, L.K., Taylor, C.L.C. (2007). Does couple identity mediate the stress experienced by caregiving spouses? Psychology and Health, 22, 211–229.

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