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Big differences in caregiving to partners or to parents

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09 March 2018

Informal caregivers who look after a partner spend more hours on household care tasks than informal caregivers who look after a parent. They also experience a higher total burden, more mental and physical health problems and more problems combining caregiving with other daily activities in comparison with informal caregivers who look after a parent. These are the results of research by epidemiologist Marloes Oldenkamp from the University Medical Center Groningen. It is important that employed informal caregivers receive more information about formal care leave arrangements. This will reduce their burden and stress, thus enabling them to continue in both roles for longer. Oldenkamp will be awarded a PhD for her research by the University of Groningen on 14 March.

In 2014, about 4.3 million people in the Netherlands who were aged 18 and older had provided informal care in the previous year; this is 33% of the adult population. Many caregivers have positive caregiving experiences, but about 10% find it a very heavy burden. In her thesis, Marloes Oldenkamp looked at whether and how variation in negative and positive caregiving experiences can be explained by characteristics of the informal caregiver, the health situation of the care recipient, the situation in which the care is given and the possible spill-over of caregiving on other areas of life such as paid work. She included, via a questionnaire, the experiences of 965 informal caregivers in her research.

Differences between spousal caregivers and adult-child caregivers

Oldenkamp’s research revealed differences between spousal and adult-child caregivers. On average, spousal caregivers provide more hours of household care tasks than adult-child carers do. The average health of the parents of adult-child caregivers is poorer than that of the spouses of spousal caregivers. Spousal caregivers experience a heavier total burden, more mental and physical health problems and more problems combining caregiving with other daily activities in comparison with adult-child caregivers. Spousal caregivers also experience a higher total burden if their partner has more health problems, whereas adult-child caregivers mainly experience a higher total burden if they spend more time caregiving. According to Oldenkamp, this means that support for informal caregivers must take into account whether the informal caregiver is providing care to a partner or to a parent. Oldenkamp: ‘The present health situation of the care recipient and the present time spent caregiving are important predictors for the future experienced burden. This gives some pointers for preventing caregiver burden.’

Combining caregiving and employment

Oldenkamp’s research also shows that informal caregiving can affect other areas of life such as paid employment, and can lead to adaptations at work. She looked at which adaptations employed adult-child caregivers used at their work. The most common was holiday leave (41%), followed by individual agreements with the employer (30%), formal care leave arrangements (13%) and reduced working hours (6%). Employed adult-child caregivers who worked a lot of hours, had more health problems or had to interrupt work or activities more often to provide care, had used one or more of these strategies more often. However, half of the informal caregivers had not made use of any of the adaptations.

Reducing caregiver stress and burden

Oldenkamp believes that it is the responsibility of policymakers and employers to inform employed caregivers about the existence and availability of various formal care leave arrangements. She also calls on them to pay special attention to adult-child caregivers with a lower level of education, because her research shows that they make least use of these leave arrangements. Using leave arrangements may reduce the stress and burden caused by problems combining paid employment and caregiving. It could enable employed caregivers to continue in both roles for longer. In conclusion, Oldenkamp believes that it is important for employers to consider a caregiver-friendly human-resources policy.

Curriculum vitae

Marloes Oldenkamp (1986, Wageningen) studied sociology at the Radboud University of Nijmegen and Public Health & Society at the Wageningen University. She conducted her research at the SHARE Research Institute and the Department of Epidemiology at the UMCG. This was within the interdisciplinary Healthy Ageing, Population and Society (HAPS) research programme. The title of her thesis is Caregiving Experiences of informal caregivers. Oldenkamp is now working as a researcher at Nivel.