Women and Caregiving

65% of older persons with long-term care needs rely exclusively on family and friends to provide assistance. Women provide the majority of informal care to spouses, parents, parents-in-law, friends and neighbors. When it comes to women and caregiving, they play many roles—hands-on care provider, care coordinator, friend, companion, surrogate decision-maker and advocate.

Here are a few of the key statistics about women and caregiving:

  • An estimated 66% of caregivers are female.
  • The value of unpaid care that women provide ranges from $148 billion to $188 billion annually.
  • The average caregiver is a 49-year-old woman who works outside the home and provides 20 hours per week of unpaid care to her mother. 
  • Although men also provide assistance, female caregivers may spend as much as 50% more time providing care than male caregivers.

From these numbers, we can see that most of the time, when we talk about who is doing the caregiving for parents, the daughter will be in the #1 spot. As a matter of fact, one large-scale study showed that daughters were twice as likely to be caregivers for their parents than sons. Now, let’s look at some of the challenges facing the female caregiver.

Women and Caregiving: Heightened Challenges for the Female Caregiver

Financial Consequences:

  • Women who are family caregivers are 2.5 times more likely than non-caregivers to live in poverty.
  • Estimates indicate that some 20 percent of all female workers in the United States are family caregivers. These caregivers cope, to the best of their abilities, with competing demands from caregiving, work and other roles. Often, they have to decrease work hours, give up promotions or take leave which can have big economic repercussions.
  • For example, the cost impact of caregiving on the individual female caregiver in terms of lost wages and Social Security benefits equals $324,044 (a $40,000 higher figure than that for male caregivers).

Health Consequences:

  • Women who cared for ill parents were twice as likely to suffer from depressive or anxious symptoms as non-caregivers.
  • Over one in four (26%) female caregivers reported fair to poor health compared to 12% of women generally.
  • A female caregiver is less likely to participate in preventative healthcare. For example, 21% of female carers had mammograms less often. And, a female caregiver is more than twice as likely not to fill a prescription due to cost.

Family Dynamics, Assumptions and (Changing?) Roles

Are daughters more likely to become caregivers because it’s in their nature? Some would argue this, while many others would explain it as socialization. “As much as we supposedly try, we still often raise our girls to be more compliant than our boys,” Clinical Psychologist Linda Blair says. “We mothers do give more caregiving skills to our daughters. They are equipped and less likely to make a fuss. In order not to stir things up they take on the burden.”

Much of it comes back to what we’re shown at a young age and how all the family members think of gender roles. But, it isn’t solely based on gender. First-born children often prove to be more likely caregivers regardless of gender. And, quite often caregiving is just another way our family dynamics play out. Siblings tend to take on certain roles and we’re most likely to stick to them.

As gender roles and attitudes evolve, so too is the caregiving landscape. In only a few years, the percentage of male caregivers rose from about 30% to almost 45%.

Is There a Better Way?

The changing numbers do show that men can and will fulfill caregiving roles, though the burden is still falling mainly to daughters. The decision shouldn’t be solely based on gender, if there are multiple family members who could be caregivers. It is important that family members don’t make assumptions, whether based on gender or family roles. Talking through these big decisions can minimize misunderstandings and conflicts. Consider getting a care manager involved early in the process. They can mediate the conversations and help everyone think through options and decisions more clearly.

Things to consider in caregiving roles:

  • Family members’ situations: work, family, health status
  • Geographic locations
  • Strengths and qualities 
  • Working together as a team and how to fairly divide tasks
  • How to communicate and check-in/evaluate how things are going
  • Different options and support (home care, support services, care facilities, respite programs)
  • Your parent’s preferences and everyone’s input

The most important thing we can do for the caregiver and the care recipient is to have discussions and evaluate the best options. And, those options will likely change over time as things evolve so it is not just a one-time conversation.

Support for the Caregiver

Families should be sure to check in with each other, offer support and find out if they need to make any changes. Social support has a strong positive impact on the caregiver, reducing many of the problems mentioned above. 

Respite is essential for long-term caregivers. We offer additional tips to help find more balance in caregiving here.

Taking these steps and seeking out resources will help any caregiver. Since women tend to take on a larger role in caregiving, daughters may particularly need help to maintain balance. When we look at women and caregiving, we still see disproportionate effects. If you are a caregiver, we hope these resources help (our blog has lots more, and we also manage a Caregiver Support Group on Facebook). If your family is starting on this journey or struggling, we hope this gets you thinking about the best approach to caregiving for your family.

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