A new study finds that older women are happier when doing chores and errands if caring for a disabled husband than simply doing housework alone. In addition, this study found that, unlike women, men did not experience any improvement in well-being when acting as a caregiver for their wife.
“A lot of studies have focused on the burden of caregiving, especially for women, so we expected to see worse well-being for wives caring for a husband,” lead researcher Vicki Freedman, at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, told Reuters Health in an email. “What we found was surprising – first, that older women report greater happiness levels when providing care to their husbands than when carrying out the same kinds of tasks as chores – and second, that older women are no less happy when caring for their husbands than they are doing other kinds of activities,” Freedman said.
For the study, researchers used existing data from a 2009 phone survey of almost 400 married couples over age 50. They then rated activities performed the previous day by the level of happiness or frustration felt during the activity. Participants were asked about the level of disability of the spouse, if any, and what types of household activities were performed the day before, such as shopping, cooking and cleaning.
The activities were categorized as either “chores” or activities to “care” for the spouse, then well-being levels were rated on a scale from 0 to 6, where 0 was not at all happy and 6 was very happy. Researchers found that caring for a husband was about a third of a point (0.35) of extra happiness above doing the same kinds of activities as chores. Freedman notes that is about the boost in happiness that one gets from social interactions. For husbands, it was found that neither care duties nor their spouse’s level of disability was associated with a difference in reported well-being.
Freedman explains that at that age, men and women have different care requirements and the kinds of activities that caretakers engage in could be different, explaining the possible difference between men and women wellbeing while caring for spouses. “For instance, women are more likely to prepare meals and do laundry as part of caring for their husbands whereas men are more likely to handle household repairs and financial matters when caring for their wives,” she said.
While these results are interesting, they don’t give researchers any recommendations on how to improve the care experience. Freedman adds that since results are from only one day, it does not mean that caregiving leads to more happiness.
With more research comes the realization that people who care for others need care themselves. “Family and friends may be able to help provide some relief by assisting with household chores like cleaning, cooking, and laundry,” she said. “A caregiver may then be freed up to spend more time dedicated to care activities that he or she finds personally fulfilling or to other enjoyable activities.”