Writer Annie Dillard famously said, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” Her thoughtful observation also extends to relationships: the people with whom we share our days ultimately leave a big mark on our overall lives. For many older adults, the person they spend the most time with is their caregiver—whether that’s a spouse, child, or professional home aid. The relationship between a caregiver and patient is undoubtedly one that has a significant impact on both people’s health and happiness.
In fact, research has found a direct correlation between the quality of this type of relationship and the health of the patient. One study by Johns Hopkins and Utah State University examined a group of Alzheimer’s patients to see what, if any, effect their relationship with their caregiver had on their condition. The study discovered that having a close relationship with a caregiver actually helped to slow down the development of the patient’s dementia. Constantine Lyketsos, the director of the Johns Hopkins Memory and Alzheimer’s Treatment Center, suggests that the health benefits are even greater when the caregiver is a spouse.
However, any nurturing relationship with a caregiver—no matter if they’re family or a professional home aide—has positive effects. So much that it can even help the person age in place longer. Lyketsos explains: “We’ve shown that the benefits of having a close caregiver, especially a spouse, may mean the difference between someone with advanced dementia staying at home or going to a nursing facility.”
And while having a strong relationship clearly benefits the patient, the caregiver also gains something significant: it’s a lot more fulfilling to work with someone with whom you share a mutual respect. This can influence whether a caregiver’s daily work environment is healthy or harmful to their emotional well-being. It’s well worth the effort to invest wholeheartedly in the relationship between caregiver and patient—for the sake of everyone’s health.
Challenges in the Relationship Between Caregivers and Patients
As important as it is, the complex nature of the caregiver-patient dynamic can create a few challenges. Each person has a role that demands a lot them. Patients are in an inherently vulnerable position: they need to ask for help and depend on another person; losing autonomy and accepting care is not an easy thing. Caregivers, meanwhile, have the difficult task of being emotionally available and giving of themselves, day in and day out. So, depending on how the relationship is nurtured, it has the potential to become a well of support, trust, and respect—yet it can also manifest in ways that are damaging to both people.
And while it’s often a family member who takes on the role of caregiver, many situations require outside help. Particularly when families no longer live near their aging loved one, professional home care aids can be instrumental in helping older adults age in place. Of course, inviting a stranger into your home comes with its own set of risks. Older adults can find themselves victims of elder abuse, while home care aids can experience problems on their own side: common issues include wage theft, verbal abuse, and unfair treatment. But even though both people can be mistreated, it’s easily possible to build a deep, nurturing relationship that benefits everyone. And the reward is well worth the effort.
A Meaningful Patient-Caregiver Relationship
Rachel Aviv, a staff writer for the New Yorker, has been investigating different relationship dynamics between patients and caregivers for many years. During her research she stumbled upon a heartwarming example in Cathy and Valerie. Cathy is a 49-year-old mother of two, and has Multiple Sclerosis; Valerie is a professional home health aide who works for a local agency. Before coming into each other’s lives, they’d both had a string of bad experiences with patient-caregiver relationships. In their interview with Aviv, they share how they went from being skeptical and scared of one another to becoming like family.
As a patient, Cathy candidly offers her personal insight into what it’s like needing to rely on someone all the time. She explains, “the hardest thing is to ask somebody to help you.” Cathy had difficulty initially trusting Valerie with intimate activities like helping her in and out of the shower. But she reached a point where she saw there was no other way—receiving help from a stranger was the only way to keep herself healthy. This allowed her to finally say, “let me stop and accept help.”
One of the most touching moments is the story of when Valerie took Cathy out for lunch for her birthday. Cathy was panicked because she has a tremor in one of her hands, making it difficult for her to eat. She feared embarrassing herself and slowing everyone down. Valerie, on the other hand, encouraged her to do it anyway and to take as much time as she needed. Having Valerie’s support gave Cathy the confidence and courage to go to a restaurant for the first time in six years! And she had a wonderful time. The experience was yet another opportunity for the pair to show each other support and trust.
Despite—and also because of—these natural hardships, the relationship between a patient and caregiver can be incredibly emotionally rewarding and a major source of strength for both people. It’s not an easy road, but it’s one worthwhile truly investing in: the benefits of building a compassionate relationship with your aging patient or loved one know no bounds. Never stop striving to learn from each other and invest in the more challenging areas. Because no matter how long you’ve been in the relationship, there’s always room to connect more deeply and offer additional support.
If you’re seeking information for how to best care for your aging loved one, Institute on Aging is here to help with our resources, programs, and services. Connect with us today to learn more.