As I have said before, it takes a village to care for an elderly person, but every village needs a Mayor and like it or not, I am the Mayor. I’ve never been voted in – I am the only candidate, by force of geography, in my case, and possibly a bossy personality. And probably gender, if research is to be believed.
[Actually I am also the CEO, my own Executive Assistant and oftentimes the CFO.]
A 2014 Princeton study showed that American women ‘stepped up’ twice as often as their brothers to care for elderly parents. Gender plays an important role in who cares for elderly parents. Personally, I’m surprised it took a formal study to discover this to be honest, because almost everyone I know caring for an elderly parent, whether that parent is Dad or Mum, is female. Some of those women are providing care for their husband’s parents, so being a blood relative is not even that important. Women take on the lion’s share of caring duties for the elderly. It’s the circle of life – just as you have pretty much finished caring for children – BOOM – along comes eldercare.
In the process, the emotional and often the financial, burden of caring for elderly parents falls to daughters-carers as well.
The author of the study describes how daughters feel ultimate responsibility about parent care (“But who else is going to do it?”) and also how they feel that their “legitimacy and affection are questioned if they look for alternative sources of parent care”.
“Whether the mechanism operates through internalized values of gender-appropriate behaviour or stigma for gender-deviant behaviour, either view suggests a higher base level of parent caregiving for women”
I gave up my full-time job to care for my Dad – since he stopped driving and had a fall and broke his wrist. I am not the ‘principal breadwinner’ in our household (plus Dad is not my husband’s father), so it was logical for me to do so, but it was an awful decision to have to make (for me) as I loved my work and the sense of fulfilment it gave me, but it was the right one for him. It’s not time yet for him to go into residential care. And yet I find myself still incredibly busy and exhausted. What was a ‘pop in once a day and organise dinner’ thing for dad had turned into sometimes spending four hours a day with him or doing things for him. I am fortunate that we are in a position for me to be able to do this – many work full-time and care for elderly parents as well.
A quick scan of my friends and acquaintances in similar situations prove the point of this research – by far the majority of people caring for elderly parents are women (and no disrespect to the no doubt many men doing the hard yards, but I’m guessing they are only children or deserve a medal. Or possibly a parade in their honour.
- The woman who took her very frail mother with her family every Christmas holidays to their beach house because her brother always made plans to go overseas at Christmas. Even on the odd occasion when he was in the country he came on holidays with them.
- The full-time working woman with three brothers who visit their father once a week, who still does the lion’s share of care for him, including meal preparation, washing, and doctors appointments. One of her brothers lives in the next suburb to her father.
- The full-time working woman with three children who had to move her mother to a nursing home close to her because her mother demanded to be near to her, even though she had a son, in the same town
- The woman who purpose-built a granny flat for her mother, and cared for her for 15 years, while working, only to be threatened with legal action by her brother after their mother died because he thought their mother should have had more money in the bank, and assumed she had taken it (!)
- The woman, whose children had all grown up and left home, whose own parents were both dead, who visited her mother-in-law daily and was almost the only visitor the woman had.
Are we ‘good’ or stupid? Do women have a level of empathy and caring missing in men? Are men only good at doing things that are of personal interest to them, or when asked? Or is this a perpetuation of the myth that women are more nurturing? Does this also impact on the statistics for part-time vs full-time work, and contribute to the gender pay gap? If a woman earns less than her partner, it makes sense she would be the one to reduce work hours or give up work to care for a parent. Thus perpetuating the gender pay gap, which probably started when they had children.
I don’t know the answers to these questions and don’t have time to find out. It is what it is, but I suspect most women take that attitude.
In 2015 there were over 2.7 million UNPAID carers in Australia and two-thirds of those were women, according to Carers Australia.
Statistics in Australia bear this imbalance out, even in paid employment. In 2011 the Australian Bureau of Statistics show that workers in the community service industries (which includes aged care), women form the majority of employed staff – 84% in fact, and the age profile shows that it is older women in paid employment in this segment – more than half are over 45 years of age.
Perhaps the old bloke Euripides has been right for centuries:
“To a father growing old nothing is dearer than a daughter”