We all know how tough it is to be a family caregiver. The physical, financial, and emotional strains have been well documented for years. And those of us who have cared for a family member hardly need research to describe these pressures. But a new study suggests active caregiving, as opposed to the role of passively sitting and waiting for a problem to occur, may reduce emotional stress.

The findings, by University of Buffalo psychologist Michael Poulin, suggested that the ability to help with bathing, dressing, and the like was especially important to those who share a mutually beneficial relationship with their spouse. In other words, these caregivers felt better helping when they believed they were also getting something back.

In the paper, “Does a Helping Hand Mean a Heavy Heart,” Poulin does not suggest that caregiving is good for you. And he is looking the emotional well-being of caregivers, not their physical health. We know from other research that caregivers, especially spouses, may be at greater risk for poor health than others. In addition, many elderly spouses are not able to provide assistance such as transferring or bathing.

Still, Poulin’s finding are important.They suggest that if a caregiver is physically up to it, taking an active role in helping a loved one can help their mood. It is worth keeping in mind as we design homecare programs.

The study involved 73 caregivers whose average age was 71.5 and who ranged in age from 35 to 89. Age made little differences in the results.

I am also curious about the consequences of this research on paid aides. My own view is that aides, just as family members, feel bettter when they can take an active role in helping a patient. Sitting on the couch watching TV doesn’t seem to do any more to improve the well-being of aides than it does for family members.