Caregiving: gender and responsibilities


By Louise Sukle

At some point in our lives, most of us will become caregivers to someone other than our children. It is often spouses, children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews and neighbors who provide unpaid care to a relative or friend in need.

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.1She typically provides help in dressing and undressing, getting in and out of bed, taking prescribed medications, shopping for groceries, providing transportation, and/or using technology.2 reports family caregivers, particularly women, provide over 75% of caregiving support in the United States. At various times in my life, I have lived that statistic, although I would generally characterize my level of caregiving as “low burden” (an index based on the number of hours of care provided) because I was fortunate to share caregiving responsibilities with family and paid caregivers.

Aging parents often have rigid beliefs (that it’s fine for a daughter to reduce her work hours to help with personal-care tasks while a son’s role is to pay their bills). However unfair this may be, bear in mind that sibling infighting can only compromise the parent’s well-being, add anxiety to an already stressful situation and lead to lifelong resentment. Barry J. Jacobs, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist and family therapist, and member of the AARP Caregiving Advisory Panel reminds caregiving siblings of these three can’t-miss ground rules:

  • Everyone must contribute in some form or fashion.
  • Negotiate continuously with one another to fine-tune the caregiving plan; after all, it must address not only the parent’s changing needs but the caregivers’ changing lives.
  • Be flexible; don’t let fixed expectations about gender roles keep you from delivering in a superb group effort.

Whether you become a caregiver gradually or all of sudden due to a crisis, or whether you are a caregiver willingly or by default, many emotions surface when you take on the job of caregiving.

In small doses or over a short period of time, my experience has been that most duties are manageable. But having to juggle competing caregiving demands with the demands of your own life on an ongoing basis can be quite a challenge.

Because of the varied roles that informal caregivers play, they need a wide range of support services to stay healthy, improve their skills and remain effective in their caregiving role. Those support services can include information, assistance, counseling, respite, home modifications or assistive devices, caregiver and family counseling, and support groups.

Information and support services are critical to your role as a caregiver, but frequently it’s hard to know where to turn for help. Our Caregivers Guide, which is included in this issue, provides you with information and access to support services in central PA.

Caring for a loved one can be a labor of love, but it can also be overwhelming. Men may be sharing in caregiving tasks more than in the past, but women still shoulder the major burden. Husbands, sons, and brothers need to get on board.

Enjoy the holidays and see you next year!