The Importance of Regional Context for the Wellbeing of Spousal Caregivers
The growing demand for long-term care (LTC) and its adequate provision is one of the challenges of societies facing population ageing. The majority of care work in Europe is provided by family members and this demanding task can be a stressful experience for the person giving care. In a recent study, Melanie Wagner and Martina Brandt questioned whether the availability of regional formal care could contribute to improve the wellbeing of caregivers. Concretely, they examined the association between caregiving to a spouse in old age, the wellbeing of the person providing care and the regional context.
Using the 2013 Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe (SHARE), the authors analysed data of the population aged 50 and older from eleven European countries (Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, Spain and Switzerland). To take into account the marked regional differences within European countries, the eleven states were divided into 138 regions. To measure the contextual conditions of formal care, they used the number of available LTC beds in nursing homes or residential care facilities per 100 people aged 65 or older within a region. They also took into account additional important characteristics of the caregiving person such as gender, age, education, financial situation, employment status, number of children, physical health, religiosity, access to public services, as well as household size and the economic wealth of a region (GDP per capita).
Results indicate that, on average, the spousal caregivers showed a lower level of life satisfaction, a higher degree of loneliness, more depressive symptoms and less sense of control than non-caregiving spouses. However, the availability of formal care services plays an important role in shaping these results. Compared to non-caregivers, spousal caregivers were more satisfied with life, felt less depressed and less lonely when LTC services were available in their region. The authors suggest that possible explanations for these findings may be that 1) the presence of formal care services lowers the level of stress within caregiving spouses since there is the option to receive professional support, and that 2) the possibility to replace or complement informal care with professional care may enhance wellbeing of the caring individual via a positive feeling of control.
Overall, the study indicates that the availability of formal care is not only essential for the care recipients themselves, but also for the caregiving partners. Offering alternatives to informal care may be a key factor to improve caregivers’ wellbeing. Local governments have the chance to actively influence the conditions for healthy ageing of the growing number of care receivers and family caregivers at the same time, for instance by offering low-threshold assistance.