The Gender Inequalities of Eldercare

Article excerpt

A longer version of this material, including research sources, originally appeared as the paper, "Housing and LongTerm Care Needs of Florida's Older Women: Acknowledging the Gender Gap," in Life Issues of Florida Women Mid-Life and Beyond (Tallahassee, FIa.: Florida Commission on the Status of Women, 200J). Our thanks to the Commission for allowing this adaptation. For the full publication, go to documents/annual%2oreports/20o6senio rreport.pdf.

Women today are projected to live 28 additional years beyond the age of 55 almost four years longer than men. As women reach their middle and elder years, they typically participate in three scenarios that can profoundly influence their quality of life and of the lives of those closest to them. Two scenarios focus on the pre-eminent role women play as caregivers for cognitively impaired family members who have difficulty living independently. A third scenario focuses on frail older women and their efforts to secure quality care.

These three scenarios focus on how the eldercare responsibilities are placed on the backs of middle-aged and older women. Portrayals of the unequal care responsibilities of men and women are not new, but two persistent trends will heighten the American public's sensibilities to this inequality: As elder Americans increasingly cope with age-related vulnerabilities in their own homes, our reliance on nursing home care will diminish; and the increase in the numbers of aging boomers will make these three scenarios more common.


For many wives, daughters and daughters-in-law, the caregiver role is emotionally satisfying. It is an experience of giving back that they would not avoid, and provides on-the-job training that prepares them for the frailties of their own old age. Though women may welcome this responsibility and find it rewarding, caregiving is physically and psychologically stressful. They may pay a heavy price for their unselfishness in the forms of higher rate of physical injury, depression, anxiety, suicide, alcohol excesses and abuse from those they help.

When two or more siblings are trying to assist, personal conflicts may erupt when there are disagreements over care decisions. Daughters who did not have positive relationships with their mothers may be reluctant and even abusive caregivers. Caregivers still in the workforce experience additional downsides. They might be likely to miss or to be late for work, require temporary leaves of absence and be less productive. This makes them less valuable as employees, which can lead to missed promotions and resentment.

Sadly, personal sacrifice and good intentions do not guarantee good quality care. Most caregivers have little training or caregiving experience, and do not take full advantage of available community resources. Additionally, careful government oversight of the informal care delivered in ordinary households is rare.

All three scenarios are especially difficult for low-income women with meager savings. A woman's single status, whether she is unwed, divorced, separated or widowed, is a significant poverty predictor among older women.

Data tracked from the 1970s show that single women ages 65 and older typically are three times as likely as their married counterparts to have incomes below poverty level (the poverty risk is even greater at higher chronological ages). Women who are separated are seven times as likely to experience poverty. Widowed older women also must confront harsh economic realities, as a spouse's death may result in reduced Social Security and employee pension benefits. Poverty rates are particularly high among African American and Hispanic older women, females who are more likely to be divorced or separated than white females - a pattern that is projected to persist.


The attractions of low-density suburban, small town and rural living mean that automobiles are essential for older women living in these communities. …