Taking Care of Others Benefits Fibro Patients

by Kristin Thorson, Fibromyalgia Network Editor
Posted: February 28, 2011

Staying employed with fibromyalgia can obviously provide you with social support and economic rewards. However, Laura Zettel-Watson, Ph.D., states, “Middle-aged and older adults often occupy several roles simultaneously; for example, they may be employed as well as giving care to children, grandchildren, or parents.” So the question that needs answering is: How does employment and caregiving impact the overall health of people with fibromyalgia?

Too many demands placed on an individual from multiple roles may cause strain and be detrimental to overall well-being. On the other hand, multiple commitments to job and family can be rewarding and improve quality of life. If you are wondering how other fibromyalgia patients fare with juggling work and family life, a new study by Zettel-Watson at California State University in Fullerton, addresses these issues.*

Employment status, caregiving roles, and health-related measures were examined for a group of 70 middle-aged fibromyalgia patients and compared to a control group of 76 middle-aged adults that did not have fibro. People in this non-fibro group were not in perfect health; they represented adults in the community who are bound to have some aches and pains, but without the widespread pain of fibromyalgia.

More than half of the fibro group and 75 percent of the non-fibro group held college or graduate degrees. In addition, both groups resided in southern California where wages ranged from $50,000 to $75,000 annually due to the high cost of living. Please keep these two factors in mind as you read the study results.

Health status, quality of life, physical functioning, and level of depression were all substantially worse for the fibromyalgia group compared to the non-fibro group, regardless of the number or type of roles engaged in. This finding reinforces what patients already know, that living with fibromyalgia is definitely not easy, even if one has a college education.

Although fibro patients struggle with many symptoms and health-related factors, employment and caregiving commitments tended to produce a favorable impact. Both health status and general quality of life improved when fibro patients fulfilled one role (job or caregiver). When patients were committed to two or more roles, these benefits declined slightly but remained above the level for those patients who were not involved in any roles.

Physical functioning and depression scores both showed improvement when fibro patients were involved in at least one role. This benefit was slightly greater for patients committed to multiple roles.

The results for the non-fibro group were nearly the opposite of those for the fibro group. As the number of roles increased, health status and general quality of life declined. Depression scores and level of physical functioning remained the same regardless of the number of committed roles for the non-fibro subjects.

Could the type of role played by fibro patients (employment versus caregiver) influence their health status? “Differences may exist between people with fibromyalgia who have an employment role versus those with a caregiving role,” writes Zettel-Watson, but her study did not detect any differences. She adds that this could be due to the small size of her study.

“Research has demonstrated the potential benefits of employment for physical health and quality of life,” writes Zettel-Watson. “Despite the problems that may accompany the caregiving role, the current results suggest that this role also may enhance the well-being of those with fibromyalgia.”

Being involved in any role (work or caregiving) can be a source of motivation, build self-esteem, and keep patients exercising their bodies and minds, even if the roles are performed out of obligation, according to Zettel-Watson. While commitments to any role created added strain for the non-fibro group, people with fibro benefitted from being involved in at least one role.

Future studies need to take a closer look at the impact of more than one role on people with fibromyalgia. Based on the results of this study, Zettel-Watson says “it is possible that participation in one role is beneficial but addition of other roles starts to strain or overburden those with fibro.”

Although fibromyalgia clearly impairs quality of life, your overall well-being and function may improve if you are able to remain employed or elect to become involved in a regular commitment such as caregiving.

* Zettel-Watson L, et al. Impact of Employment and Caregiving Roles on the Well-Being of People with Fibromyalgia Syndrome. J Musculoskel Pain 19(1):8-17, 2011.

7 Responses to Taking Care of Others Benefits Fibro Patients

  1. LouAnn says:

    Great info! I agree that being a caregiver for someone else definately helps you work through the struggles of fibro. We recently moved my dear mother-in-law into our home and I have been able to assist her which has been good for my health and well being!

  2. Leslie says:

    You definitely haven’t convince me that there is a cause and effect relation ship here. Fibro patients who are doing better are obviously able to handle more in the way of commitment. In my own life, the more commitments I have, the worse I feel. I’m having a hard time taking care of myself, much less anybody else. The way I am when I wake up in the morning, it would be hazardous for me to try to drive to a job. Perhaps there are subsets for whom this might be true, but for the rest of us, your statements may make it more difficult to get disability and more likely that we be blamed for our own symptoms.

  3. Cindy Haynes Caswell says:

    When I was first diagnosed with fibro, app. 10 yrs ago, I was the director of a new non-profit organization created by 3 phenomonal women. It was (is still) a program to help parents/care-givers provide necessities for their babies. I could not have loved my job more and I often told people how well I was coping with my fibro and that I didn’t believe the medical community could help me. Sounds pretty smug, huh? Little did I know that my fibro symptoms would increase, not only the pain and CF but my cognitive skills as well. Eventually, caring for others was a big part of pushing me over the edge. I hasn’t been able to work for more than a year. I finally have a great medical team and I’m learning how to prevent overload. When I get too involved in other folks struggles I take on their pain and before I know it I’m flat out. I would love to be doing a job that involved caring for others and hopefully, I will be capable of doing it again someday. In the meantime, I hope the folks who feel compelled to take on caring for others based on this ‘study’ are careful and don’t feel a sense of failure if it doesn’t work out.

    • Carole McGuane says:

      I agree your story completely. I was employeed for 11 years at a non-profit agency as the Director for the Home-based team. We delovered services to families involved with the Department of Children and Family and provided support and individual/gamily therapy to those about to loose their children who were about to have the children reunite from foster care. We also provided servives to families in crisis and to individuals who were in need of therapy and support. i loved my job, however, caring for the house, husband, daughter who returned home with her young daughter, and aging Mother became too much. I left my job and collect disability.
      I care for my family and provid support to my 80 y/o Mother and still feel the affects of the this damn disease.
      Time will tell, Cindy remember to take time for yourself. If we are not caring for ourselfs we cannot care for those who we love.

    • Amita says:

      I think it’s so great that you guys are doing this- ceargivers need support of their own. I was reading about the stress caregiving can cause, and how ceargivers really need support groups and other individuals to help them with their own life so they can continue to give care to their loved ones. These support groups are such a blessing.

  4. Karen says:

    I am 53 years old. I have had fibromyalgia for 25 years. I work full time five days a week as an administrative assistant, so I am on the computer all day. I do take lots of breaks and won’t lift or bend too much, but the job affects my neck and shoulders. I manage my FMS with walking, tai chi, massages, naps, regular sleep schedule, support meetings, journal writing, staying warm, pacing myself, asking for help with household chores/lifting/carrying. I also have been taking care of my 4-year old granddaughter every weekend now for 3 years. I am lucky that she has another grandparent that can have her during the week. Taking care of my granddaughter helps get me “out of my self” and then I am not focused on my pain. As she gets older, it is easier to take care of her.

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