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Study: Caring for Aging Parents Packs Powerful Punch

Never believe that you know the last word about the human heart.-Henry James

Just as they complete the task of raising children, many Canadians face a new challenge in life: providing care to aging parents.

To date, most research has focused on the downside of caring – a time consuming, stressful task. Few studies have looked at its positive aspects. To fill the gap, a trio of Canadian researchers – Sue Wilson (Ryerson University), Nancy Mandell (York University) and Ann Duffy (Brock University) – set out to study the upside of caring.

The study is based on interviews with 110 middle-aged women providing care to older parents in Southern Ontario. Approximately half of the women were married, four per cent were widowed and 20 per cent were separated or divorced.

The researchers found caring for aging parents packs a powerful punch. Rewards include opportunities to return love and express it. The women also report finding new meaning in life, especially as they accompanied parents through the final stage of life.

Results of the study were published in the Journal of the Association for Research on Mothering (Vol. 10. No.1, 2008).

Giving back

According to researchers, participants in the study were motivated to care for parents out of both feelings of love and a sense of duty.

For example, “Barbara,” a wife with a busy career, had undertaken the primary responsibility for her parents’ care. “It didn’t bother me because I felt it was my duty to look after my parents because they raised me,” she said.

“Ruby” expressed both feelings of affection and a sense of duty toward her grandmother:

My relationship with my grandmother was important. She cared for us all – my sisters and my parents. After my grandfather died, it was a relationship of mutual care giving. My husband and I would check on her and do any errands or shopping for her, and she would make us treats.

Acting out of love

Not surprisingly, children who are close to their parents are more likely to find the experience of caregiving positive.

The father of “Rose” had been in a coma for four years at the time of the study.

All the time, I visit, I have to make sure he is comfortable, so I can take care of him. I always wash his face, tidy him up. And when my mom was sick I had to do the same thing. Then she passed, so now it’s my dad. . . . Even though he doesn’t know that I am there. He can hear me, but he can’t respond to me, but I still need to be there.

Similarly, “Mary” was adamant about caring for her 80-year-old mother, in spite of having to juggle the demands of adolescent children, a husband and a high-powered career. “I just look at my mother now and I know I am going to lose her some day and that’s very hard,” she said.

Finding new meaning

According to researchers, several participants said the death of a parent had triggered a turning point in their lives, prompting them to rethink life decisions.

Take “Anita,” who had only grown close to her mother when she was in her 30s. Mother and daughter had endured a stormy relationship during Anita’s adolescence and early adulthood.

I was devastated when my mother died. And it made me really try to rethink what I thought about how I wanted to live the rest of my life. So I think it took me a 10-year period to figure that out.

After her mother’s death, Anita, the mother of three children aged five to 14, was able to finally come to terms with her alcoholic husband’s behaviour.

Upside of caregiving

According to researchers, few participants denied the complex demands of caregiving, while celebrating its positive aspects. Participants were able to repay some of what they had received in life by caring for their aging parents. Caregiving also deepened their sense of gratitude and opened up new sources of personal meaning.