Caregiving for an aging loved one is often couched in unhappy terms like "burden" and "challenge." Survival seems to be the highest goal to shoot for—just get through those days, months, years with your sanity and finances intact, and you'll be ahead of the game.

But is it possible to go beyond this uninspiring aim? Can you "thrive" while caregiving?

Those who either have or currently are looking after an aging loved one are sure to differ in how they answer this question, but two leading psychology experts say the key to thriving, especially for those who are middle aged and older, lies in the strength of one's relationships.

"Relationships enable us to not only cope with stress or adversity, but also to learn, grow, explore, achieve goals, cultivate new talents and find purpose and meaning in life," says Brooke Feeney, associate professor and director of the Relationships Lab at Carnegie Mellon University, in a press release.

Feeney, along with University of California, Santa Barbara professor Nancy Collins, outlined how relationships help people thrive in a recent paper in the journal "Personality and Social Psychology Review."

Close friends and family offer invaluable support that enables us navigate the voyage of life—helping us to weather the raging storms and encouraging us to catch the wind when the sun comes out. Understanding how our interactions with others have the power to enhance our lives can help us make the most these all-important connections.

Thriving: 5 key factors

When psychologists speak about "thriving," they're really talking about five distinct factors: physical health, happiness and life satisfaction, leading a purposeful life, believing in order and humanity, and social wellbeing.

Cultivating the right relationships will create the support structure that enables you to actualize each of these elements in you own life.

How close supporters help us grow

Collins and Feeney identify two main types of aid that can be found in close connections with loved ones: source of strength support (SOS) and relational catalyst support (RC).

When your longtime friend hears that your dad's been diagnosed with cancer, she immediately offers to help. Over the next few months, her ongoing aid is one of the few things that keeps you going. She bought "Betty Crocker's Living With Cancer Cookbook" and brings a new dish over for you and your dad at least once a week. She held your hand in the doctor's office while you were waiting for dad's latest test results, and offered an understanding ear when you needed to get something off your chest. In essence, she is an ideal example of an SOS supporter—someone who helps you not only cope with, but flourish in spite of, the challenges you face.

SOS support can be especially helpful for family caregivers. On the other hand, RC supporters come to the rescue during life's less tumultuous periods; encouraging you not to get too complacent and challenging you to pursue new opportunities.

Giving and receiving

One essential (yet often overlooked) element of support is the manner in which it is given and received.

For givers of support, making a loved one feel dependent or ineffective—even if you don't intend to—is a surefire way to transform help into harm.

"It's not just whether someone provides support, but it is how he or she does it," says Feeney. Supporters need to be both responsive (providing the right amount of aid, given the needs of their partner and the circumstances) and sensitive (making their partner feel cared for, understood and validated). This can be a tricky balance to strike, especially if you're looking after a parent who's in denial or a strong-willed spouse.


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Receivers of support have an important role to play, too.

Graciously acknowledging and accepting help—in whatever form it's given—is crucial. Even though you may want your sister to help shoulder more of the day-to-day responsibilities for mom's care, if she lives so far away that her main contribution must be financial, then appreciating the assistance she can give is the best way to avoid conflict and ensure her ongoing aid.

Ask for help when you need it, just be sure to make your requests clear and specific, and try not to put everything on one person.

To be sure, these guidelines are much easier to dispense than they are to follow, especially when the health of aging loved ones is involved. Relationships, particularly our closest ones, will always involve work and must be seen as a constant process of learning and growth. But the vital importance of these connections cannot be overstated; as Feeney and Collins note, "Close and caring relationships are undeniably liked to health and wellbeing at all stages in the life span."