I was trying to explain to a male colleague why I was naming my new (at the time) website “Daughterhood.org.” He’s an expert on aging and shares responsibility with his sister for their mother’s care. So, I wanted his advice on creating a resource that helps families care for their parents.
When he heard the name of the website, his first reaction was: “So this isn’t for me?” A couple of other men were confused too.
They thought I was being impractical. Why would I go to the trouble and expense of building an organization to help people manage their parents’ care and then name the website in such an exclusive way – potentially losing half of an audience who would benefit from the information and resources.
It’s a fair question, and it got me thinking about the differences between how men and women approach caring for their parents. The biggest difference starts with the numbers.
It’s an undisputed fact that, in caring for frail, elderly parents, women are doing more unpaid work. Survey data analyzed by my colleagues, Rich Johnson, and Josh Wiener, reveal that daughters account for about seven of every ten adult children who help their frail parents. And five of every six assume primary responsibility for the day-to-day, in-the-trenches, labor-intensive duties that keep a parent dressed, fed, bathed and out of a nursing home bed.
But anecdotally, I know a lot of men do heavy lifting too. They manage finances, haggle with doctors, hospitals and insurance companies. They research and make decisions about where, who and how paid care will be delivered. Some also do hands-on daily care.
And, while there may be fewer men providing and managing their parents’ care, they worry about their parents just as much as women and they’re as deeply affected as women by the burden of responsibility and the experience of witnessing their parents’ loss of independence and dignity.
The Difference I Worry About
The relative contribution between men and women of money, time and stress are important – in particular, the loss of earned income, career advancement and retirement savings that comes with the extra, unpaid work That women do. I also worry about how parental care aggravates a more subtle and insidious gender difference that plays out in other aspects of women’s lives.
This difference – the “not.good.enough.try.harder.please.everyone” – is expressed really well by Lisa Miller in the last paragraph of her article, Stop Blaming Women for Holding Themselves Back at Work. She says,
“Try harder. That’s the message that women hear all around. Try harder to be happy. Try harder to be skinny. Try harder to be a good employee, mother, wife, daughter, friend. Try harder to feed your family nutritious meals and to give your child every possible opportunity. Try harder to find “flow” at work. Try harder to succeed…… when there’s a whole lot of trying without commensurate succeeding, then you have to start to consider that the game is rigged.”
This is an important observation relative to our health and elder care systems because they are truly, truly rigged. As a family member caring for elderly parents, it’s almost impossible to feel good about the job you do. The complexities of the situation require professional skills. Unfortunately, most of the medical professionals assisting in these areas: doctors, hospitals, insurance companies, nursing homes, and assisted and independent living facilities … have an extremely NARROW view of their responsibilities.
What do I mean by “narrow?” I mean that our health care system, by and large, works well with technical problems but is terrible with complex problems. And frail, elderly people have tremendously complex lives. Their needs cross-cut basic tasks of living, medical care and emotional and family issues. The professionals participating in the health and elder care systems just aren’t trained to look across these domains.
If your healthy, vigorous 70-year-old dad needs a heart valve replaced: you’re in luck. There’s a surgeon out there who is a great technician. However, if your confused 82-year-old mother ends up in the hospital because of stomach problems, she’ll get an endoscopy and NOT the nutrition counseling or meal preparation she needs at home to prevent her from eating spoiled food. Also, her physician may not delve into the root cause of the confusion: Is it her medications? Are there too many? All this will be up to you to find out.
This leaves you performing professional duties without the requisite skills. If a boss gave you a job you weren’t qualified to perform without any support and then told you that your family’s well-being depended on you, we could safely say you are set to fail. At the very least you’d certainly be set up for an ulcer.
A typical man responds: “This situation stinks.” A typical woman responds: “I’m failing.” What’s worse, the woman will perceive herself to have failed her parent.
It’s this toxic blend of self-reproach and a dysfunctional elder care system that warrants a community dedicated to women. It’s called Daughterhood because I want – first and foremost – to convince my girlfriends – women caregivers and managers – that we are up against a mighty wind, AND that our efforts ARE good enough. Working together, we can do something about this, creating a sense of ease and control. If men want to be part of it, all the better – I want men to be part of this conversation.
A Profile of Frail Older Americans and Their Caregivers, The Retirement Project, The Urban Institute, Occasional Paper Number 8, February 2006.
Thanks for finally talking about >Women face tough challenges When Caring Aging Parents <Loved it!
Wow, I LOVE this essay. “Toxic blend of self reproach and a dysfunctional elder care system” perfectly describes my experience fighting for my mother over the last 18 months. The system just kept failing her, in spite of our joint efforts that we were assured were all that could be done, and more than most people were able to figure out they should do for themselves. The description of the narrow view of responsibility is also spot-on. It’s a crazy spiral of patient and family doing for themselves whatever falls outside discrete tasks professionals do, and often suffering the wrath of professionals who seem to believe that patients should be happy to be told that they cannot get help with overall problem.
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What I hear is you saw a short coming of appreciation and support for the women caregivers.
So, you created an avenue “Daughterhood” to help with solutions, a place for expression and encouragement, so they can appreciate themselves and what we do.
I am a bit of a realist, tell the men to grow up. They can read what they choose. I read Men’s health magazine because they give good health advice.
The name you choose is appropriate, because it’s your targeted audience 😅
It’s such a relief when someone in the know is both informative and HONEST about the realities we women all face “out there”. Thank you so much for this post. It is all so well said!
The Family Caregiver Support Group at my job forwarded us the link to your website. Thank you so much for putting into words…….”the woman will perceive herself to have failed her parent”……exactly what my heart feels a million times a day. It is refreshing to hear someone voice the pain and frustration that all of us feel.
Fantastic article that depicts what many of us “sandwich generation” experience, emphasizing the impact on woman. There’s no real help to protect from multi-generation caregiving and its’ impact on retirement savings, and the balance of work and home priorities. We’re signing up to host a Daughterhood Circle here in Irvine Thanks Anne !
When my mother realized she could no longer manage on her own, she looked at me and said, “Well, these things usually fall to the daughter.”
That was it.
Of my brother, her first child and her favorite, she asks nothing. She thrills to his weekly five-minute phone call.
I, however, am expendable. I had to give up my job and a huge chunk of my life to see her through her medical emergencies, run her errands, make and take her to her appointments and make sure she has everything she needs. I see her for one reason or another 4-5 days a week. She has resources, but, well, I’m cheaper. And it’s never enough – she complains that I don’t come over often enough to sit with her and watch TV.
I want to help her, but we were never close and it’s so hard.
Time is running out for me to find decent work again, and I have no retirement to speak of. I’m not getting any younger myself; I’m exhausted and really discouraged. I have sworn never to let my daughters sacrifice their lives and futures to see me off into the sunset.
So, yeah – I think it’s fair to say, in general, that it’s worse for women.
Marilyn, So sorry for all you’ve been through. You’re wrong about one thing though – you’re the opposite of expendable – you’re a rock star in my book! I so agree when you say “I think it’s fair to say, in general that it’s worse for women.” SO TRUE – Women do seem share the brunt of caregiving – Why do you think our site is called Daughterhood?
OMG, that is what my Mom says. Even when my Dad said, half joking, we should pay Lauren for all she does. My mom
Just says, this is what she should do. I have 3 brothers and my mom is son happy and excited for the minimal about of time they stop in to see her. She has told me to my face, this is what daughters should do. I guess i am stuck since i have 3 sons and no daughter! This has been going on for @5 years. I used to feel good cause my Dad noticed all i do. But Dad is now in a facility, doesn’t talk much … i miss him and feel like i lose him over and over again. Now Mom has become worse, paranoid, confused, memory problems… but she gets mad at me! This is so hard
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Oh my gosh! I am sooooo glad I have found this blogsite!! After 2½ years of caregiving, I have found it necessary to set boundaries with those who I thought would understand where
Thank you for this website Anne, your observations are spot on and I see by the posts here that I am not alone. Thank you for the much needed encouragement! It helps to remember we have to be good to and care for ourselves as we care for others.