By Lisa Rapaport

(Reuters Health) – For caregivers tending to a seriously ill spouse, quality of life may improve to a greater extent if the partner dies than if the partner recovers, a German study suggests.

That paradoxical finding – that life becomes more satisfying when sick partners die than when they recover – may arise from the fact that on average, bereaved caregivers in the study had heavier caregiving burdens, with sicker spouses and more hours spent caring for their loved one until the caregiver role ended, said Laura Langner, a sociology researcher at the University of Oxford and Nuffield College in the UK who led the research.

“Caregivers whose partner recovered were largely unaffected in their life satisfaction, unless the burden in terms of weekday care, errands and housework hours or severity of spousal disease that was lifted off their shoulders was similarly high, in which case they also became similarly more satisfied with their lives upon recovery of their spouse,” Langner said by email.

Caregivers in the study were tending to a sick spouse who required constant care or assistance with daily tasks like bathing, dressing and eating. Over four years of follow-up, 152 spouses died and 112 recovered from their illness.

The level of care needed for dying partners was significantly higher than for spouses who recovered.

Caregivers of partners who died spent roughly twice as many hours providing unpaid care on weekdays as caregivers of partners who recovered.

Only 28% of those whose partner recovered had to spend seven or more hours a day providing care, doing errands, and handling housework, compared with 71% of caregivers whose partners died.

After a death, caregivers experienced marked improvements in life satisfaction from one to two years after they were widowed that were not mirrored by the experiences of caregivers following the recovery of an ill partner or spouse.

The study wasn’t designed to prove whether or how caregiving for a partner or spouse impacts quality of life or life satisfaction, or how this might shift with death or recovery of the patient.

And results from Germany, where caregivers receive some financial support, may not reflect what would happen elsewhere in the world. Life satisfaction might be impacted differently by the caregiving burden in places where there isn’t this type of financial support, the study team notes.

The study also grouped caregivers based on whether they handled more or less than seven hours of care per day on weekdays, making it impossible to know if there might be differences in life satisfaction between death and recovery for caregivers who only spent a few hours on care.

Still the results offer fresh evidence of the strain family caregiving can take.

“The results suggest that more support for caregivers with high caregiving burdens may alleviate some of the strain associated with spousal caregiving as – even if the partner died – a decrease in caregiving hours/strain was associated with an uplift in life satisfaction,” Langner said.


J Gerontol B 2019.