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Does personality matter? The role of individual differences in caregiving

By Eva Bei Published 02.06.2021

Informal caregivers are individuals who provide unpaid care to a family member or friend with a chronic illness, disability or other long-term care needs. It is estimated that caregivers provide up to 80% of care to individuals with long-term care needs (Hoffmann & Rodrigues, 2012). Informal caregiving can include emotional and social support, assistance with household tasks, cooking, grocery shopping, medical care and transportation.

Caregivers can experience both positive and negative outcomes as a result of their caretaking responsibilities. The positive aspects of caregiving may include feelings of personal growth, satisfaction and an overall rewarding experience. Simply put, caregiving is an act of love. And when the person being cared for is a spouse, parent, other family member or close friend, that action can be profoundly meaningful.

Yet, being a caregiver can have considerable mental and physical tolls. Caregivers can sometimes feel “swallowed up” by their caregiving role and responsibilities. In fact, evidence suggests that many caregivers report high levels of burden, depression and anxiety (Faronbi et al., 2019). Also, some caregivers may feel that providing care to their loved one is hard on them emotionally or that they cannot easily manage the daily tasks and stressors related to caregiving.

Nevertheless, there is a variability in caregiving experiences and not all caregivers are at equal risk for adverse health outcomes. For example, some caregivers feel more willing and confident in managing caregiving demands, and experience less emotional distress and burden than others.

Dimensions of personality

Previous studies suggest that the heterogeneity in caregiving experiences is associated with caregiver’s personality. The most widely accepted theory of personality held by psychologists today is the Five-Factor model, often referred as the “Big 5 personality traits”. According to the theory, personality consists of openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. Each trait represents a spectrum and individuals can lie anywhere on the spectrum of each of the five traits.

- Openness refers to the openness to experience, a person’s tendency to consider new ideas and think abstractly.

- Conscientiousness describes the extent to which a person is organized, self-disciplined and determined.

- Extraversion is characterized by sociability, talkativeness and the tendency to be outgoing and energetic in social situations.

- Agreeableness reflects how cooperative, warm, caring and helpful an individual is.

- Neuroticism describes the extent to which an individual responds to various stressors with negative emotions including anxiety, fear, guilt or shame.

Does personality play a role in the caregiving experience?

Yes. Studies have shown that the way individuals cope with caregiving is related to their personality characteristics. Neuroticism is the personality dimension that has received the most attention. Among caregivers, high levels of this trait were found to be related to a greater sensitivity to caregiving stressors, increased levels of depression, anxiety and caregiver burden. This may be due to the fact that caregivers high on neuroticism tend to feel more anxious with the caregiving demands and appraise the caregiving situation more negatively. In addition, there is some evidence that caregivers high on neuroticism derive fewer gains or rewards and less enjoyment from taking care of their loved one.

In contrast, caregivers high on extraversion tend to be more positive in their appraisals of the caregiving situation. This could be explained by the fact that extroverted people keep a more optimistic outlook through difficult caregiving challenges and are more able to maintain their social life and leisure activities even when the daily caregiving tasks are increased.

Similarly, caregivers’ high levels of conscientiousness are associated with more adaptive coping strategies, lower sensitivity to caregiving stressors and a better relationship with the care recipient. Conscientiousness, defined by qualities including high levels of thoughtfulness and goal-directed behaviors, may allow caregivers to derive a sense of gratification and satisfaction in their role and protect them from feeling overwhelmed when facing daily caregiving stressors.

Moreover, caregivers who score high on openness to experience, report better quality of life and life satisfaction. Turiano, Spiro, and Mroczek (2012) argue that individuals who are more open to new experiences are able to adapt better to potential stressors because they are less afraid of changes and more willing to try new approaches in order to handle stress. Therefore, openness to experience may benefit caregivers’ quality of life by handling the stress stemming from the caregiving demands easier.

Finally, caregivers with high levels of agreeableness are more likely to recognize the benefits of care provision and derive a variety of gains. Defined by characteristics such as being warm and caring, agreeableness allows caregivers to feel more “at home” when caring for a loved one and thus find more benefits in caregiving compared to caregivers who are more emotionally distant.

So how can personality assessments help us to support at-risk caregivers?

Understanding caregivers’ personality may lead to the design of more effective programs to support caregivers. As personality is relatively stable over time, personality assessments can help practitioners and psychologists to identify at-risk caregivers early. However, most programs for caregivers today have focused on universal solutions rather than the unique individual profile of caregivers.

Personality-informed programs should be developed to support caregivers’ psychological health. But how could these individualized programs help caregivers? For example, extroverts might benefit more from group-based programs, while introverts could find group settings very uncomfortable, preferring one-on-one interventions. Similarly, caregivers who are less open to new experiences and derive less enjoyment from trying new things are likely to benefit the most from traditional one-on-one programs.

In addition, since our personality traits are related to the way we cope when caring for a loved one and coping strategies are trainable, coping interventions could be designed using information about caregivers’ personality characteristics. For instance, neuroticism is the trait most strongly associated with a negative coping response towards caregiving stressors. Thus, a caregiver high on neuroticism is especially at risk of a greater stress experience. Coping skills training programs could help such caregivers in using problem-focused coping strategies to reduce stress and derive meaning and growth from stressful caregiving situations. Overall, providing personalized support and matching caregivers to the psychoeducational program that is relevant to their unique personality profile, could increase engagement and improve the caregiving experience.

Finally, we should not forget that our behavior is the result of a complex interaction between our personality, sociocultural context and living environment. The exact situation that caregivers find themselves in, plays a key role in their caregiving experiences and the way they respond to various stressors. The role of being a caregiver is a journey in constant flux based on several factors, such as our personality characteristics, culture, socioeconomic status, health status and relationship with the person receiving care.

Just as every person is different, every journey is unique and in order to support caregivers we should look into their own caregiving journey.

About the author
I’m Eva Bei, a Marie Skłodowska-Curie ITN fellow and a PhD student at Bar-Ilan University, Israel. In my PhD project, I explore how caregivers’ personality and their living environment could affect willingness to care and lead to various psychosocial outcomes including caregiver burden, depression and anxiety, over time.
Want to connect? Find me on Twitter (@Bei_Eva_) or send me an email at eva.bei@biu.ac.il

Recommended reading
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2. Revenson, T. A., Griva, K., Luszczynska, A., Morrison, V., Panagopoulou, E., Vilchinsky, N., & Hagedoorn, M. (2016). Caregiving in the illness context. In Caregiving in the Illness Context. https://doi.org/10.1057/9781137558985
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Hoffmann, F., & Rodrigues, R. (2010). Informal carers: Who takes care of them? Available: https://www.euro.centre.org/publications/detail/387