Lihua Huang, PhD

Effects of social networks on the health of family caregivers in later life: A cross-sectional study

The purpose of this study was to better understand the social value of family caregiving in later life by examining the effects of social networks and family caregiving on the health of older adults aged 65 and over. In this study, family caregiving in later life was conceptualized as a social event in which community-dwelling older social network members contribute to unpaid, informal caregiving of a kin or a non-kin person with chronic illness, disability, or other dependent characteristics on a regular basis. Social networks were defined as older-adult-centered multidimensional social relationships that cut across traditional kinship, residential, and class groups.

Built on prior studies and theory, this study expected to find that family caregivers with stronger social networks would be more likely to have higher levels of self-rated health and physical function, lower risk of disease, and higher levels of mental health after controlling for age, gender, race, and socio-economic status.

This study employed the positive gerontological framework to investigate the social value of family caregivers in later life. A positive psychological framework was used to highlight meaning and values of late family caregiving beyond caregiving burden and stress, with special emphasis on family caregivers and their social networks. It was a cross-sectional, explanatory survey study using a questionnaire developed specifically for this study. Multiple data collection and data analysis methods were used to enhance the validity of the results.

Results highlighted that family caregivers in later life had significantly lower levels of physical function and mental health, but social networks positively affected their wellbeing. Also there were significant effects of social networks and family caregiving in later life on the health of the older adults in the study.

The nature of the study limited our ability to generalize from the results. However, several implications were identified regarding methodology, research, and practice, and this study added new knowledge to the family caregiving literature by presenting new empirical evidence on the social realities of family caregivers and their health outcomes, including family caregiving as a valuable event in later life, strengths and resilience of caregivers, and relational aging.

More research is needed to collect qualitative data for an in-depth understanding of health and social networks.