Imagine a 55-year-old man named Frank who feels burnt out and irritable after six years of caring for his 86-year-old mother with mild dementia. Making her dinner, managing her pillbox, filling out her insurance forms, driving her to medical appointments — it has all become too much for him. “I feel like I’m being buried,” he tells his wife. “I don’t want my mother to die, but this can’t go on forever.”
When an acquaintance at work asks him for advice about how to best handle being a caregiver, however, Frank eagerly shares what he knows about dealing with stubborn care receivers and a confusing health care system. After a while, other coworkers start seeking him out for caregiving guidance. His minister identifies him as the go-to person at his church for fellow congregants to discuss their struggles with caring for aging parents.
What is happening here? On the one hand, Frank seems fed up with caregiving. On the other, he relishes that his lived experience as a caregiver gives him trustworthy “cred” and makes him a godsend to friends, colleagues and neighbors. Frank has discovered it is highly gratifying to be a caregiver champion or advocate. Helping others on their caregiving journeys gives him greater motivation and drive to continue taking care of his mom.
Decades of social science research studies have found that doing good is generally good for us. A 2010 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, for example, found that advocates for others benefit psychologically in three ways — by feeling more competent, relating more closely to others and exercising personal autonomy and choice. A 2015 study in Clinical Psychological Science reported that helping others can decrease helpers’ everyday stress and worries.
As paradoxical as it may seem, these findings suggest that the more stressed and exhausted family caregivers are feeling, the more important it is for them to devote time and energy to supporting other caregivers. One might even infer that family caregivers who go to caregiver support groups, say, get more from giving compassionate advice than from receiving it during those group meetings.