Caring about Informal Caregivers’ Health – London or Leiden, does it matter for their experiences?
Population aging is often seen as an abstract concern that is best left to politicians or the pension-funds to occupy themselves with. The aging population, however, has many implications for our everyday life and not necessarily because we grow old ourselves. Older individuals are more likely to need support in their day-to-day activities and increasingly their families and friends are involved in meeting these needs. This informal care often allows the recipients to stay in their home as long as possible, but at the same time it can require considerable effort from caregivers. Providing informal care often happens alongside other duties, such as paid work or childcare, raising the question how this additional responsibility affects the health and wellbeing of caregivers themselves.
While many researchers at ESHPM study informal care, we (Jannis and Judith) experienced last month that the same holds true for our neighbors on the other side of the pond, when visiting a group of researchers at London School of Economics. While we expected a handful of like-minded researchers, we were pleasantly surprised to meet a group of about 20 researchers who work on various topics related to informal care.
After hearing about the research our UK-colleagues are conducting, we had the opportunity to present our own work which focuses on caregivers in both the UK and the Netherlands. Next to studying the impact informal care provision might have on one’s own health we were namely interested in investigating whether providing informal care in the UK would be more demanding than doing so in the Netherlands. For example, because of differences in the formal care system or because of normative differences.
In the following hour, we presented our work in which we analyzed two large-scale household-panels, surveys that follow the same households over multiple years, from the UK and the Netherlands. Doing so, we compared the impact informal caregiving has on the caregivers’ own health across two healthcare systems in which informal care is frequent but for potentially different reasons. On the one side the UK, where few individuals qualify for state-funded social care services and hence many elderlies rely on informal care to meet their care needs. On the other side the Netherlands, where a generously funded system often allows individuals to rely on state-funded services if needed.
Our results indicate that it is mainly the composition of caregivers that differs between both countries, not the impact care provision has. While caregivers in the UK tend to provide more hours of informal care, in both countries it is mainly caregivers providing more than 20 hours of care per week that experience a strong decrease in their mental health. On the positive side we found that there is little evidence for caregiving having a negative effect on informal caregivers’ physical health.
However, of course the questions don’t end here. Much additional research is needed to understand how this mental health burden emerges and what policies can be tailored to alleviate it. Importantly though, while quantitative studies such as ours are insightful we learned that for many questions that emerged based on our results we will need to engage more with other disciplines and their findings on informal care.