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Posted: October 15, 2004

Spiritual Caregiving

Caregiving's Gift and Other Acts of Kindness

(Editor's Note: Research shows that people who volunteer to help others are healthier in mind, body and spirit. That's especially true for help a caregiver provides another person in a face-to-face situation (as opposed to, say, writing a check -- which can also be a good thing to do). The first two items below from Spirituality & Health show two sides of volunteering and the elderly. The third suggests one reason volunteering -- or anything that helps give life meaning -- is so good for you.)

Simple Acts of Kindness

More than a quarter of Americans over age 55 struggle with simple daily activities such as shopping, cooking and housework. That's about 16 million people, half of whom say they don't receive help from family or others.

About a third say they have looked for help in the community without success. "The research clearly demonstrates the tremendous need that exists for older Americans and the urgency of providing services now," says Michael Perry, a partner at the polling firm of Lake Snell Perry & Associates, who collected these statistics.

The survey was sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Its 10-year-old Faith in Action program invites Americans of every faith -- including Buddhists, Catholics, Hindus, Jews, Muslims and Protestants -- to work together to improve the lives of their neighbors of all ages with long-term health needs through more than 1,000 chapters nationwide.

If you suspect that a neighbor could use a hand, you're probably right. Keep in mind that our own bodies require at least four hours a month of face-to-face volunteering for good health (see May/June Spirituality & Health). Your body will probably thank you for reaching out.

-- The Editors

Givers Live Longer than Receivers

In a recent study at the University of Michigan 's Institute for Social Research, Stephanie Brown followed 423 elderly couples for five years. She asked them whether they helped friends, neighbors or relatives with housework, child care, errands, transportation or other necessities, and how much they could count on help from friends or family. During the course of the study, 134 of the subjects died.

Brown's study, published by the Minnesota Board on Aging in January 2003, found that those who reported not helping others had twice the mortality rate of the helpers. Overall, 75% of men and 72% of women surveyed reported helping friends, relatives or neighbors without pay during the preceding year.

Analyzing the correlation between mortality and giving and receiving help, Brown used a method that let her "rule out the possibilities that older people give less and are more likely to die, that females give more and are less likely to die, and that people who are depressed or in poor health are both less likely to be able to help others and more likely to die."

Brown found that receiving help did not seem to lower the mortality rate. "These findings suggest that it isn't what we get from relationships that makes contact with others so beneficial," Brown says. "It is what we give. There is evidence to suggest that individuals with a fighting spirit survive longer with cancer than individuals who feel helpless or less optimistic about their chances for survival. Now it seems that the same may be true of a giving spirit."

-- The Editors

Finding Meaning in Life Means Greater Immunity

Those who find positive meaning in stressful events cope better psychologically than those who don't, studies find, but until now, little was known about the bodily effects of finding meaning. A recent study at the University of California in Los Angeles shows that finding positive meaning benefits the immune system as well.

The study, published in Annals of Behavioral Medicine (Spring 2003), of 43 women who had lost close relatives to breast cancer looked at how the women coped with the death and the associated worry about their own risk of cancer.

At the beginning and end of the study the women filled out questionnaires about the values and goals that gave them a sense of meaning and purpose and the commitment to pursue those goals. Then they had blood drawn to determine their levels of "natural killer" cells that attack cells infected with viruses and some types of cancer cells. The women were asked to write every week about their loss and other subjects.

The researchers found no correlation between the writing exercise and the women's search for meaning in life, but did observe that women whose search for meaning intensified over time had greater "natural killer" cell activity. Women reporting the opposite suffered a decrease in immune system response.

-- Bridget Coila

This article originally appeared in Spirituality & Health magazine, For subscriptions call 1-800-876-8202 or see Editor Stephen Kiesling and his staff contribute weekly columns, features and articles published every Friday as "Spiritual Caregiving" at Contact staff directly via email at

© 2004 Pederson Publishing, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Commercial use, redistribution or other forms of reuse of this information is strictly prohibited without the prior written permission of Pederson Publishing.

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