Most seniors with long-term care needs rely on their family and friends to provide assistance, and a great majority of them rely on women, usually their adult daughters. Although the proportion of men (sons) is steadily increasing, women constitute the majority of caregivers.
What are the consequences of this gender gap?
Why Are Women Caregivers?
Research shows an estimated 66 percent of caregivers are female. Although men also provide assistance, female caregivers may spend as much as 50 percent more time providing care than male caregivers.
Darby J. Morhardt, a Research Associate Professor at Northwestern University, studied the motivations behind why women provide care. She posits that a complex mix of expectation and obligation combined with love and gratitude propel women toward this work.
For example, women express a greater sense of responsibility toward family members. Although some studies suggest that male caregivers are also driven by a similar sense of commitment and family responsibility, women are further motivated by their concern about the emotional well-being of people for whom they provide care.
These attitudes and attachments lead women to devote greater time to caregiving compared to men, serving not only as caregiver but also as hands-on health provider, care manager, friend, companion, surrogate decision-maker, and advocate.
Where Does All This Time Come From?
In a review of the evidence, Morhardt found that the gender gap in caregiving stems from the gender gap in the workforce. Because of the gendered nature of paid work, “Women are less likely to be employed outside the home, and women’s work roles are viewed as home-centered and reflect a greater sense of family obligation,” she writes.
Other research shows that the market value of the informal care that women provide ranges from $148 billion to $188 billion annually.
Yet estimates indicate that some 20 percent of all female workers in the United States are family caregivers. The time these women have to take out of the workforce for caregiving leads to lost wages from reduced work hours, family leave, or early retirement.
One national study on women and caregiving highlighted the conflicting demands of work and eldercare. The study found that:
- 33% of working women decreased work hours
- 29% passed up a job promotion, training, or assignment
- 22% took a leave of absence
- 20% switched from full-time to part-time employment
- 16% quit their jobs
- 13% retired early
But the toll that caregiving takes is not just financial.
What Are the Consequences?
Men may be sharing in caregiving tasks more than in the past, but females still shoulder the major burden of care. Research shows that female caregivers experience greater role strain and role conflict than male caregivers.
Role strain occurs when someone is unable to meet the expectations and obligations of multiple roles. They might feel role overload when competing demands overwhelm their ability to carry out the role, or they might feel trapped in their role, which is referred to as role captivity. Role conflict occurs when someone has difficulties fulfilling the caregiver role and experiences negative consequences from this role.
For example, women who care for their parents are twice as likely to suffer from depressive or anxious symptoms as noncaregivers and are less likely to have their own health needs met:
- 25% rated their own health as fair or poor
- 54% had one or more chronic health conditions
- 51% exhibited depressive symptoms
- 16% were twice as likely in the past year not to get needed medical care
What Should Be Done?
Support services such as information, assistance, counseling, respite, home modifications or assistive devices, support groups and family counseling can make a real difference in the day-to-day lives of caregivers.
As women’s participation in the workforce continues to grow, employers should implement workplace support programs to mitigate the impact that caregiving can have on workers.
Morhardt also points out that a majority of the studies carried out have been among women, to paint a clearer picture of caregivers of the elderly, researchers need to focus on the experience of male caregivers.
“If gender differences are significant,” she writes, “this has major implications for the development of gender-specific caregiver interventions and social policy recommendations to improve the experience of female caregivers.”
As you experience caregiving with the men and women in your life, conflicts might arise due to the gender gap. For more tips about navigating adult sibling relationships, download Brothers and Sisters, a guide to resolving sibling conflict when making assisted living decisions.