Imagine that you’re at work, responding to an important email or thinking about next quarter’s goals. Your phone rings. When you answer it, you hear your next-door neighbor telling you that your mother fell. She’s fine, but they’re going to the hospital just in case.
It’s a familiar balancing act for family caregivers, being able to compartmentalize work and family life. Everyone experiences spill-over. But not everyone experiences it the same way.
According to a study presented by researchers at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, if you’re a man, that phone call might not derail your workday. However, if you’re a woman, you’re likely to experience increased stress and negative emotions.
The study, led by Shira Offer of Bar-Ilan University in Israel, suggests that women and men spend the same amount of time worrying about family matters, yet women feel a disproportionate amount of negative emotional effects from this mental labor.
What does that mean for brothers and sisters who are caring for their aging parents together?
When it comes to shared decision-making, you and your siblings might have different styles, experiences, and points of view. Keep in mind that these are generalizations and don't apply to either sex all of the time.
How Men Make Decisions
Men tend to want to rush too quickly to the finish line. Research shows men often take an instrumental, task-oriented approach to caregiving. Sons might see an illness as something to fix or caregiving as a task on their to-do list.
In a sense, this is good. Research shows men remain somewhat distant and detached. Rather than seeing caregiving as a way of life, brothers can get away from it mentally more easily.
According to Offer, “Fathers are quite adept at leaving their work concerns behind and are better able to draw boundaries between work and home. I believe that fathers can afford to do that because someone else, namely their spouse, assumes the major responsibility for the household and childcare.”
Previous research found that sons tend to view parents as capable of making decisions about their lives, and they wait for parents to let them know what kinds of help they need. In terms of caregiving implications, Offer’s study suggests that brothers need to take a greater role in family care to make mental labor less stressful for working sisters and ease the double burden that they experience.
How Women Make Decisions
Women tend to explore all the various aspects of the problem, moving slowly toward a plan of action. Research shows women can become “submerged” in caregiving. Daughters might not even see themselves as caregivers. They might feel caregiving is what’s expected of them — she’s just doing what a “good daughter” is supposed to.
In a sense, this can be good. Research shows women experience more closeness and connection.
On the other hand, when caregivers become preoccupied with other concerns and stresses of daily life, it can impair their ability to provide care.
According to Offer, “These thoughts and concerns — mental labor — can impair our performance, make it difficult to focus on tasks, and even hurt our sleep.”
Previous research found that daughters are more likely to monitor parents, offer advice, and intervene by providing more services. Offer’s study suggests that daughters need to take the pressure off themselves by enlisting siblings or exploring alternative living arrangements.
How Brothers & Sisters Can Make Decisions Together
Men and women both bring strengths to the decision-making process. In general, men quickly generate solutions in a rush for the finish line, and women explore, communicating about various underlying concerns. But women also love to generate solutions, and men can enjoy sharing the exploration of relevant concerns.
When you put these strengths together and focus on shared decision-making, you and your siblings may acquire tools to get through your family caregiving challenges.
For more tips about navigating adult sibling relationships, download Brothers and Sisters, a guide to resolving sibling conflict when making assisted living decisions.