Hour-for-hour, daughters spend more than twice the amount of time caring for their aging parents than sons do, according to a new analysis that found that adult women dedicate over 12 hours each month attending to their parents' needs. Men, by comparison, contribute fewer than six hours.
The statistic, presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association, is overall, unsurprising. Whether it's nurturing a newborn, looking after an ill sibling or caring for an older adult, women have always been at the forefront of caregiving efforts. Despite a modern trend towards a more gender-balanced family caregiver population, 2012 figures from the U.S. National Alliance for Caregiving still have the proportion of female family caregivers in the majority; at 66 percent.
"Sons reduce their relative caregiving efforts when they have a sister, while daughters increase theirs when they have a brother," says study author and Princeton University doctoral candidate, Angelina Grigoryeva. "This suggests that sons pass on caregiving responsibilities to their sisters."
The compound effect of conflicting interests
These findings, which were uncovered by evaluating data on more than 26,000 adults over 50 who participated in the University of Michigan Health and Retirement Study, highlight how the ongoing gap between men and women who shoulder caregiving responsibilities has wide-reaching ramifications.
Balancing work, family life and caregiving can require putting professional aspirations on hold, and prior research shows that female employees are quicker to sacrifice their careers on the caregiving pyre than their male counterparts; a move that can financially hamstring the entire family. Even worse, women with lower annual incomes are more often forced to quit their jobs because they cannot afford to hire a home health aide to cover their caregiving duties while they work.
When the career impact of caregiving is combined with the physical, emotional and financial hardships of the role, Grigoryeva argues that the challenges faced by daughters caring for their aging parents could be widening the gender gap with regards to money and health. "The U.S. has been gradually becoming a more gender egalitarian society since the 1970s," she says. But adds the caveat that this recent study "shows gender inequality remains acute when it comes to elderly parent care."
Do sons really not care?
In the wake of such findings, the discussion naturally shifts to why daughters and sons differ so drastically in their caregiving roles. The most popular arguments are usually propped up by gender stereotypes about women being humanity's natural nurturers and men being the action-oriented analysts.
Here's what some AgingCare.com caregivers have to say about the subject of male versus female caregivers:
"It's interesting to think about the similarities and differences between female and male caregivers though. With family caregivers, there's more females because women are socialized to be nurturers. Men are socialized to be the hero and fix problems—heavy burden to bear."
"I don't think the gender matters if the person has the patience and temperament for caring for others."
"What is it about the female caregiving experience that is unique? I face the same daily challenges faced by any female caregiver. We should celebrate and support all caregivers regardless of gender, age, or marital status."
"I believe that women are generally more emotionally nurturing but I think men often have problem solving skills that can make an elder feel safe and protected. I know male carers are a rising number and gender doesn't for one minute change the challenges we deal with."