By: Jean Johnson for Uterus1
Even terming caregiving a job raises the hackles of some. When a person is in poor health, people cluster around. Nurture the wounded, the sick, the dying. Many would say that a society can be judged not by their monumental architecture or fine arts and literature, but rather by how they treat the most vulnerable members of their population – the young ones, the elders, those that are physically or mentally fragile.
| Things to consider about caregiving:|
Women may be less likely to seek formal services and when they do, they may be less likely to purchase services privately because they generally have lower incomes than men.
When women do seek help, they tend to do so after a crisis has been reached – either in their employment, their caregiving, or their own health or physical strength.
Current trends in medicine result in patients being sent home earlier to recuperate.
For more information on caregiving, visit
National Alliance for Caregiving,
While social feminists don’t dispute the ethic, they do question the idea of the caregiver role being an exclusively female one.
“Some theorists have argued biological determinism – that men and women are biologically different – to explain why women are more likely than men to be caregivers. In this approach, caregiving is viewed as ‘natural’ for women,” wrote visiting professor at Simon Fraser University’s Gerontology Research Centre in Canada, Janice M. Keefe, Ph.D. “For others, the differences between men and women are not seen to be the result of biology as such but rather the way in which biology interacts with the social and material context. The observed differences between men and women are thus believed to be social constructions.”
Keefe goes on to point out that “for social feminists, women’s roles are socially constructed through the inter-relationship between patriarchy and capitalism, and the way these are played out in women’s labour at home and in the workplace, influence our expectations of the roles and obligations of different family members.”
OK. It’s true, Keefe is an academic and on the ponderous side. But her point is clear: the 75 percent of women in the United States currently filling caregiving ranks so do on the basis of not only biological inclinations, but also societal conditions.
More, when we consider that by the year 2040 the elderly portion of the U.S. population could total 23 percent as opposed to the 12.6 percent of 1990 not to mention the thin 4 percent of 1900, the dynamic is cause for more than passing notice – especially when the typical caregiver is a 57-year-old female who is both married and employed outside the home.
In sum, back when the husband was a family’s sole support, women had the time to nurture family members. These days, however, even though women have entered the job market, they still provide much of the 80 percent of the necessary care for the elderly that family members undertake – and spend on the average, as many years caring for their parents as they do their children.
“It’s true, now that I think about it,” said Joelena Nathan, Ph.D. who lives in Chicago. “My father was the first to go downhill, and he came to live with me in 1996. I had just finished my doctorate and had a new professor job. So I got him into the local healthcare system, and people came to the house to check on him while I was at work. That helped, but there was still the groceries and cooking – he was a meat and potatoes man plus a load of bacon and eggs in the mornings, while I’m a vegetarian. But he was such a dear helping with the vacuuming and everything, dragging his oxygen tubing around after him and sitting down to rest every minute or so.”
Nathan’s father died after six months. So even though she grieved at his passing, she had several years to get her professional life in order before the next family crisis. This time it was her spinster aunt getting diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. “Since she had no children, it was up to me. I kept working until right up to the end, so we had hospice making their rounds and that included someone to bathe her and help keep the house up. It was just the last few weeks when I had to hover around, just like I did my father at the end. She was able to pass on at home, though, and I know she appreciated that.”
Nathan is up front about her ideas on gender and caregiving. “When I’m holding down a job right alongside men, I don’t see why I should necessarily be the one to do the nurturing simply because I’m female. But, in our family it’s a moot point because my brothers all died young,” she said pausing before chuckling. “So, it’s either me or the highway.”
That said, Nathan confesses that with her mother things haven’t been as easy. “Mom moved in with me in 2001 right after my aunt died. Then she had a fall, was hospitalized, and underwent therapy in a nursing facility before I brought her back home. It was totally unrealistic. I was changing diapers and washing linens – the whole bit. After a week, I realized it would never work since she could barely get out of bed. But it’s such a shock when someone you love goes down. The first impulse is to reassure them that you will make it possible for them to come back home. The day I had to take her back to the nursing home was one of the sadder of my life. We both cried.”
Nathan eventually found an adult foster home 20 minutes from where she lives for her mother. “I felt so guilty at the time. Like a traitor even though I tore my rotator cuff the last time I lifted her from her wheelchair to the car. But now four years down the pike, she and I both see that it was for the best. The foster home is excellent, and she loves it there. And today when it takes two incomes to run a family and women must work outside the home along with their husbands, the luxury of private care at home is something only the very rich can afford.”
But back to the woman question, what does Nathan think about that? “It’s a hard one, really because females do tend to mother-hen around and all. But the sad truth is that our society doesn’t reward domestic work very highly. And what isn’t rewarded tends not to be appreciated. I think that before I took on any long-term caregiving commitment, I’d see just how much whoever I was helping was willing to value my sacrifice in terms of money.”
Nathan goes on to defend what she assumes is hard-hearted talk. “I know putting things in terms of dollars and cents might be cold-blooded, but I recently took off to visit a sick friend and as a result lost $2,000 worth of work in addition to the expense of the long-distance trip. I was glad to do it, I guess. But I did notice that my friend, sick and needy as he was, was pretty focused on his own situation and didn’t seem to realize what it took for his friends to rally around. Not to say that I probably won’t be just as self-centered when my time comes, I suppose.”
Many things to consider in the caregiving realm. Will you be appreciated? How will the finances work out? Is it really a sphere that rightly belongs most exclusively to women?
Clearly as the baby boom generation increasingly fills the ranks of the 65-74 age group, and even more critically, the fragile over 85 population, these questions and more will most likely be pondered by the best of them – both women and men.