Taking care of a loved one can either be a break from loneliness or help to bring loneliness on, depending on your circumstances, new research shows.
Researchers broadly studied the issue, using data from 28 studies with more than 190,000 participants in 21 countries. They found certain types of caregiving — such as volunteering and caring for grandchildren — offered protection against loneliness in people over age 50.
However, for those caring for a spouse with complex health conditions, particularly dementia or Alzheimer's disease, caregiving was often a big risk factor for loneliness.
“Loneliness can leave people feeling isolated and disconnected from others — and can have a wide range of negative effects on their physical and mental health,” said lead author Samia Akhter Khan, a doctoral candidate at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience at King's College London, in the United Kingdom.
“There is a pressing need to identify people who may be more vulnerable to feeling lonely — and to develop targeted solutions to prevent and reduce loneliness in these population groups,” she said.
Six out of seven studies conducted in the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom, New Zealand and China linked caring for grandkids or other children with lower loneliness.
Caring for a spouse was consistently associated with higher loneliness. And volunteering was linked with lower levels of loneliness in 5 out of 6 studies.
“This is the first review of its kind to investigate systematically the relationship between older people's caregiving and volunteering activities and loneliness,” said co-author Matthew Prina, head of the Social Epidemiology Research Group at King's College London.
The findings were published Nov. 23 in the journal Aging and Mental Health.
While causes of loneliness will vary from person to person, knowing who is most at risk can lead to targeted approaches to dealing with that issue, according to the study authors.
Caregiving and volunteering have not yet been fully considered in loneliness research and interventions, the researchers recently reported in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science.
“Further research will now be necessary to investigate the needs of older caregivers — as well as to examine the barriers, opportunities and fulfilment of engaging in meaningful activities,” Prina said in a journal news release.
“This could help shed light on the optimal ‘dose' of volunteering and caring for grandchildren and identify ways to maximize their potential beneficial effects on combating loneliness in the over 50s," he added. "Respecting older adults for their contributions and valuing their unpaid activities will likely play an important role in mitigating loneliness.”
All of the studies used were from higher-income countries and conducted prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on coping with loneliness.
SOURCE: Aging and Mental Health, news release, Nov. 23, 2022