Does Personality Play a Role in the Stress of Caregiving?




Young hand with old

Family caregivers are individuals who provide short-term, or long-term, unpaid care for family members with illnesses and/or impairments. Caring for a family member allows us to express love and concern for someone who cared for us. Yet caregiving for a family member can be strenuous, and not without negative consequences. For example, the average amount of time a family caregiver attends to the needs of another is four hours a day if the caregiver is cognitively impaired, nine hours a day if the care recipient has dementia, and both types of caregivers experience similar physical and emotional strains, such as poor health and depression.

So support for caregivers of family members should not be targeted solely to those who provide care to family members with dementia; caregivers of family members without dementia but other illness and impairments suffer as well. A variety of support services are available to caregivers though, including local support groups, magazines, newsletters, and conferences.

Many family caregivers must work for pay outside the home and/or care for their children. These responsibilities, in addition to family caregiving, can leave little time for caregivers to pay heed to their own health and well-being, with consequences that impair their ability to sleep, exercise, and cook healthy meals.

Intensive family caregiving can also mean the caregiver decreases his/her work hours, resulting in lost wages. And as we learned above, the emotional consequences of caregiving include depression, as well as anxiety. Depression, not surprisingly, tend to be especially high in caregivers of family members with dementia who are also accusative, suspicious, and/or wander away from home.

So does personality play a role in the stress of caregiving? Yes.

The consequences associated with being a caregiver are related to caregivers’ personalities. Caregivers who are extraverted and conscientious tend to show more signs of physical health and mental health, whereas caregivers who are Neurotic tend to show worse signs of physical health and mental health.

And when asked to report on their own physical health and mental health, caregivers who are open and agreeable tend to report the highest levels. Depression in particular is worse for neurotic caregivers, and least problematic for extraverted caregivers. So personality is clearly associated with the strain of being a family caregiver.

Yet these findings are based on correlational research, so it isn’t clear if personality traits cause health outcomes, health outcomes cause or at least magnify personality traits, or some other third variable, such as a person’s coping style, contributes to both health outcomes and personality. More experimental research is needed to determine such.

There is some longitudinal research on coping styles though, as they relate to caregivers’ personality traits and anxiety levels. Anxiety levels are related to the ways in which caregivers cope with the seemingly endless burdens placed upon them by the needs of an ill or impaired family member. Coping strategies take many forms, and three common types are described below:

  • Emotion-Focused (e.g., social support, humor, and finding meaning in the situation)
  • Problem-Focused (e.g., help from others, advice, and planning)
  • Dysfunctional (e.g., venting, denial, and substance abuse)

Problem-focused coping helps individuals feel in control of a stressful situation, but unfortunately, research indicates that Neurotic caregivers are less likely to engage in this type of coping strategy. And longitudinal research reveals that anxiety does not escalate over time for caregivers who use positive emotion-focused coping strategies, which is also used infrequently by Neurotic caregivers.

So caregivers may wish to change the way they cope with the stressors of caring for a loved one, for the sake of the family member’s well-being, as well as their own.

References

Chappell NL, & Dujela C (2009). Caregivers–who copes how? International journal of aging & human development, 69 (3), 221-44 PMID: 20041567

Cooper, C., Katona, C., Orrell, M., & Livingston, G. (2008). Coping strategies, anxiety and depression in caregivers of people with Alzheimer’s disease International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, 23 (9), 929-936 DOI: 10.1002/gps.2007

Fisher, G., Franks, M., Plassman, B., Brown, S., Potter, G., Llewellyn, D., Rogers, M., & Langa, K. (2011). Caring for Individuals with Dementia and Cognitive Impairment, Not Dementia: Findings from the Aging, Demographics, and Memory Study Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, 59 (3), 488-494 DOI: 10.1111/j.1532-5415.2010.03304.x

Gaugler, J., Kane, R., Kane, R., & Newcomer, R. (2005). The Longitudinal Effects of Early Behavior Problems in the Dementia Caregiving Career. Psychology and Aging, 20 (1), 100-116 DOI: 10.1037/0882-7974.20.1.100

Löckenhoff, C., Duberstein, P., Friedman, B., & Costa, P. (2011). Five-factor personality traits and subjective health among caregivers: The role of caregiver strain and self-efficacy. Psychology and Aging, 26 (3), 592-604 DOI: 10.1037/a0022209

Melo, G., Maroco, J., & de Mendonça, A. (2011). Influence of personality on caregiver’s burden, depression and distress related to the BPSD International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, 26 (12), 1275-1282 DOI: 10.1002/gps.2677

Image via tepic / Shutterstock.

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Kristine Anthis, PhD

Kristine Anthis, PhD, is Professor of Psychology at Southern Connecticut State University. She studies how identity and personality develop in adolescence, early adulthood, and middle adulthood. She is also the author of the forthcoming book Lifespan Development.
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