Women make up 60% of all family caregivers in the U.S., according to research from the Family Caregiver Alliance. This significant percentage represents a longstanding norm. And, caregiving duties affect everything from women’s health to their finances, with women caregivers providing an estimated $188 billion in unpaid services each year. However, the norm is shifting. The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) found that more than 14 million men currently act as family caregivers.
Jon Strum, host of the podcast RealTalk MS, became a member of this growing male caregiver population more than 20 years ago when his wife received a multiple sclerosis diagnosis. Now, his podcast inspired by this experience reaches thousands of listeners. Through this platform, Strum says he hopes to advocate for caregivers and illuminate their increasingly diverse and complex stories.
“When I realized I was going to become a caregiver, I had no idea what that would entail,” says Strum. “We need to let guys know that they’re not alone and that there are resources in place to help them succeed in this role.”
The likelihood that someone turning 65 today will require some form of caregiving in their lifetime has surged to 70%, according to the U.S. Administration on Aging. Going forward, Strum views figures like these as a sure sign that more men will need to get involved in a family member’s care.
“So many more families are going through this experience. More often than in the past, these responsibilities are going to fall on the man in a relationship or in a family.”
Read on to learn about why families often expect women as primary caregivers, plus how both genders can challenge this assumption to create a more equitable future.
The prevalent connection between women and caregiving carries significant consequences. A study of 1,611 family caregivers published in “The Journals of Gerontology” found that women caregivers devoted more hours to caretaking labor than their male counterparts did, intensifying their caregiving burden in several areas. This increased input in family care has a striking effect on the health, mental well-being, finances, and relationships of women caregivers.
Caregivers are more likely to experience mental and physical health conditions compared to the general population. These already troubling outcomes weigh more heavily on women caregivers, in particular. In the “Journals of Gerontology” study, women reported anxiety, depression, and cognitive dysfunction at higher levels than men.
Additionally, a greater caregiving burden can compromise women’s physical health. Specifically, female caretakers are at higher risk of developing coronary heart disease and high blood pressure. Their increased responsibilities and time commitments often take on a toll on preventative health services as well. Women who provide care for an aging parent often skip out on mammograms and on filling their own prescriptions, according to research from the Family Caregiving Alliance.
Though family caregiving comes with steep costs for everyone involved, women disproportionately shoulder these financial repercussions. Women who assume a caretaker role often suffer the following economic effects:
In more extreme cases, 16% of women caregivers quit their jobs altogether. After leaving the workforce, the stark difference in financial well-being between male caregivers and their female peers continues: On average, women caregivers see $40,000 less in total retirement savings.
With life expectancy continuing to rise, more families find themselves in the position of both caring for aging parents and raising young children. Women’s unpaid labor is at the crux of this “sandwich generation” crisis.
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In addition to dedicating more time to a parent’s care, women on average contribute 42% more time to parenting than their male partners do, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. These competing duties often leave women feeling inadequate or overwhelmed in both spheres.
Caregiving can also strain marriages and romantic partnerships. Between women caregivers and male caregivers, women were 36% more likely to identify tension in their other relationships. This can hasten the caregiver burnout cycle: As women commit more heavily to their caregiving duties, they’re more likely to feel they’ve neglected other responsibilities and connections.
The idea that women will take on caring for an aging parent — rather than their male siblings assuming this role — is rooted in a concept called “family scripts,” says Deborah Smith, a sociology professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and the former director of its family studies department. Simply put, these family scripts relate to a family’s passed-down expectations, values, and communication patterns.
“When it comes to siblings caring for a parent, someone will take a lead role. It’s kind of a default,” explains Smith, who holds a doctorate in human development and family studies from Cornell University. “Usually, this person has been the ‘lead role taker’ in the family for nearly 40 years. Things aren’t going to change if nothing else changes. If that’s been the family script, it’s going to continue to be that way — unless the person who usually occupies that role speaks up.”
Just as women typically fall into these “lead roles,” Smith also notes that most men have a vastly different family script in mind.
“In general, baby boomer and Gen X males were not expected to be caregivers, so it’s going to be really difficult to have them switch up,” says Smith. “They weren’t taught to do that.”
Strum, who says men call into his podcast less frequently than women and are less likely to ask questions about caregiving, also sees these forces at play.
“What do people say about men? That we like to fix things. When we run into a situation that we can’t fix, many men don’t understand what their role might be,” says Strum.
The psychology behind family scripts closely relates to an idea Smith calls “social network theory.” This theory suggests that people often prefer and expect care from their family, rather than a broader, external community.
“For example, many older adults are very involved in their church. But even if their care needs are met by a church member, the perception is often, ‘It’s still a problem, because our daughter didn’t step up,’” says Smith.
While family scripts and expectations can be difficult to overcome, Smith stresses that this feat isn’t impossible. Several strategies and approaches can make conversations about family caregiving easier to navigate:
Though women often broach these conversations, men can contribute to more equitable caregiving by volunteering to have a larger role. Strum and Smith have a few tips for male caregivers:
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Going forward, both Smith and Strum foresee men and women contributing to family caregiving more equally.
“Millennial and Gen Z dads are more involved in caring for their kids, so these ideas behind caregiving are developing at younger ages,” says Smith. “That’s what they need to be doing, so that there is a generational difference.”
Following this rationale, by the time these fathers become caretakers for their own parents, this family script will fit more naturally. Already, the male caregiver population surged by 1.5 million between 2015 and 2021 — and experts predict this promising change will continue.
Berkley University of California. “Active Listening.”
Family Caregiver Alliance. Women and Caregiving: Facts and Figures.
U.S. Administration on Aging. “How Much Care Will You Need?”
How does the gender imbalance in caregiving affect women caregivers?
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