Is caregiving a ‘Not Without my Daughter’ scenario?

daughter scenario caregiving

“How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child!” is what King Lear said of his daughters Goneril and Regan. However, a study says that daughters are less like those two and more like Cordelia as far as caring for their aging parents goes. What’s more, daughters devote more than twice the time to caregiving detail than sons do. “It is a well-established fact that most elder care in the U.S. is provided at home by unpaid family members, usually adult daughters,” says the study, going on to imply that not only are daughters driven to fulfill their duties to their parents, but they are also compelled to pick up the slack for their brothers.

Doctoral student in sociology at Princeton University and study author Angelina Grigoryeva analyzed data from the 2004 University of Michigan Health and Retirement Study, which surveyed more than 26,000 Americans over age 50 every two years. Grigoryeva focused her investigation on a sample of approximately 3,000 parents with 1,477 sons and 1,537 daughters (one child each) and 2,461 sibling groups with at least one son and 2,488 sibling groups with at least one daughter. She found that in mixed-sex sibling groups, gender is the main factor in how much each child assists aged parents.

All told, set aside an average of 12.3 hours a month to care for their elderly parents, compared to 5.6 hours by sons. “Sons reduce their relative caregiving efforts when they have a sister, while daughters increase theirs when they have a brother,” Grigoryeva wrote. “This finding suggests sons may pass on parent-care responsibilities to their sisters.” Sons do get involved in the care of aging parents, but this occurs mostly when there is no sister or wife to help in the first place. Otherwise, caregiving seems to be where men draw the line, even as they do more work around the house or spend more time caring for children. “Gender inequality in elder care is more pronounced than in housework or child care,” said Grigoryeva.

The study centered on the statistics but did not attempt to find causes or solutions to the current status quo, though theories and suggestions abound. For instance, the research indicates that daughters are more likely to care for mothers and sons for fathers; as it turns out, the majority of elderly parents who need care are female. “It is possible that elderly women in need of care resist the caregiving efforts of sons,” Grigoryeva conjectured. Postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto's Graduate Department of Rehabilitation Science Marina Bastawrous’ own research shows that daughters “took on the caregiving role because they were the only female sibling and, in turn, their brother or brothers wouldn't do it. On the other hand, daughters who had female siblings often talked about a more even distribution of responsibilities.”

For Bastawrous, distribution of tasks according to the strengths of each sibling is a smart move. Grigoryeva seemed to agree with this, writing in an e-mail to the Chicago Tribune that “brothers (may) be more responsive when they are asked to help with administrative tasks or home repairs, rather than when they are asked to help with dressing the parent.” She added that though “the gender gap in parent care has not changed since the 1990s … the renegotiation of traditional gender roles, combined with the demographic trends, suggest we might expect that over time women would decrease and men, in turns, increase participation in family labor … resulting in a narrowing gender gap.”

In the meantime, Bastawrous suggests that caregivers “seek opportunities for support outside the family. Caregiving peers can help relieve emotional stress just by talking to a caregiver about their own experience.” In other words, “Love, and be silent” is once again not enough. 

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