Skip to content
I need help with...

The Unexpected Joys of Caregiving

The rewards of caring for a loved one more than make up for the challenges

En español | Did I hear you say oysters?" my father-in-law asks the waitress. "I never pass up oysters!" He orders them and, later for dessert, the chocolate mousse, which arrives with "Happy Birthday" scripted in sauce on the plate, one tall candle standing in for his full 93 years.

It's one of those golden days in the Golden State — and not only because of the amber light from the vineyard outside brightening our table. My three teenage daughters, pretty in their summer-brunch dresses, have been laughing at their step-grandfather's stories.

"Tell us about Jim with long hair," they prompt. "He had a surfboard?"

Jim, my husband of three years, cringes at the decades-old tales. But I can tell he's also happy to see his dad so happy.


The Surprising Joys of Caregiving, Caregiver Paula Scott and her father-in-law at the dinner table along with her family

Angie Smith

Caregiver Paula Scott and her father-in-law at the dinner table with the whole family.

"Grandpa Don," as my kids call him, moved in with us after the death of his wife of 65 years. They'd known each other for 75 years, holding hands until the very end. He's no longer able to drive or even walk far without his walker. He has heart problems, macular degeneration, deafness in one ear and, as he says while rubbing his knuckles, "my darn friend Mr. Arthur Itis." He wheezes and makes worrisome noises just sitting still.

He's also good-humored, witty and unfailing in his thank-yous. He's more likely than we are to remember his thrice-a-day pills and nightly eyedrops. An offer of dessert makes his eyebrows lift and dimples show. "Twist my arm!" he jokes.

With our blended family of six kids, ages 15 to 26, Jim and I had been counting the days to our empty nest. So it's ironic that we've now grown our household from the other end of the age spectrum. But that impulse to give back is a strong one. Over the years, Jim's mom and dad had been beyond generous to their four kids. Jim's sister and her family in rural Maine took them in when his mom developed dementia. After she died, the social bustle of 24-hour caregivers ended, and the Maine grandchildren, now in college, were gone, too. My father-in-law seemed lonely. He loved California. A good time, then, for Jim to give back, too.

Maybe giving back is biological, suggests William Haley, a professor in the School of Aging Studies at the University of South Florida in Tampa. "The same empathy that helps us take care of our kids inspires us to take care of our parents and do good for other people," he says.

In turn, this giving role gives back to us, a growing body of research shows. "When we provide help to someone we care about, we feel more positive emotions, like compassion, satisfaction and a vicarious happiness at being able to help," says psychologist Michael J. Poulin, who studies caregiving at the University at Buffalo in New York. Helping others seems to buffer the physical effects of stress, according to a five-year study published in the American Journal of Public Health. It was one of two recent studies to show that caregivers may live longer, too. In another, published in the journal Stroke, caregivers reported that helping a relative after his or her stroke gave them a greater appreciation for life and more confidence, and strengthened their relationships with others.

Surprised? If so, it's because we've become accustomed to hearing a drumbeat of negatives about family caregiving: It's costly, stressful, time-consuming, relationship-zapping. And no doubt, it has its challenges: Jim logs many hours managing his dad's insurance, taxes, bills and other paperwork. My workdays are sliced by doctor visits; new brands fill my shopping basket: Lactaid, Brylcream, Depend. There are dozens of pills to track and sort. More laundry, less privacy. Constant vigilance.

Next-wave research may suss out why the rewards persist in the face of the drudgery. Women, for example, tend to perceive more rewards from the role than men. African American and Latino families see benefits more than Caucasians. Is it cultural? Spiritual? Poulin thinks people may be "hardwired" so that tending to the needs of others helps reduce anxiety.

I know that I've found unexpected benefits. My father-in-law and I bond over our morning coffee. I learn about growing up in the Depression and what's new with his grandchildren (10, including mine, whom he follows as avidly as the others). His random comments are verbal hugs: "Do you ever look in the mirror and say, 'I have beautiful children?' " "I watch you and Jim — you make a real good team." "I tell you what, I'm so happy to be here." "I'm so glad Jim found you."

He makes me ache for my own dad, gone five years now. I was unable to take him in when he was widowed and needed care because my marriage had been in its death throes. Doing things for Jim's father is a way of honoring mine. I love, too, that my daughters have gained a bonus grandpa after losing the only one they ever knew. My girls don't know yet what a rare gift it is to grow up attuned to three generations.

Of course I worry about how we'll fare when my father-in-law grows frailer and needier. We've seen some hints of that: On his second night here, he fell out of bed. I'd risen at 5:30 to take my daughter to the airport and heard his plaintive cries in the dark. He'd been on the floor for two hours, unable to rise. "I've never been so happy to see someone!" he said, as I cradled his head, terrified he'd broken a hip. Fortunately, he was fine.

His doctor ordered home visits by a physical therapist to improve balance and strength. I was skeptical at first — PT at 93? Now, this man who could barely shift from a wheelchair to our car when he arrived at the airport does wobbly squats and leg lifts on the patio.

"You'll be doing yoga soon," Jim teases. I tell him he should grow a ponytail to surprise his Maine family with a new California look. Whenever we make him grin, I can almost feel my heart grow a little.

Maybe it does. "People who find positive aspects of caregiving are not wearing rose-colored glasses or naively ignoring problems," Haley says. "It's a beneficial form of coping with stress."

On the night of the birthday brunch, a 6.0 earthquake struck Napa Valley, its epicenter right where we'd just been. At home, an hour away, our beds shook. Living with an elderly parent is a bit like living in quake country — you can get preoccupied fretting over that next fall, the next heart attack, the next cold that could turn into pneumonia.

Or you can focus on the golden moments. After all, bad things don't just happen when you're 93, something Jim, who lost his first wife to cancer, and I both know all too well.

"What's your favorite thing about living in California, Dad?" Jim asked him recently. "The food? The weather? The scenery?"

The long pauses before my father-in-law answers always make me think he hasn't heard. Finally he finds his breath. "The family," he said in a voice strong with emotion. "Family is the best thing."

Paula Spencer Scott is the author of Surviving Alzheimer's: Practical Tips and Soul-Saving Wisdom for Caregivers.