Historically, when a family member is terminally ill, the caregiving responsibility falls disproportionately on women. However, in recent years, more men have assumed caregiving roles, and previous research has found that gender differences in caretaking have decreased. Now, a researcher at the University of Missouri School of Medicine has found women still report more negative caretaking experiences than men. The researcher says that interventions are needed to support female caregivers and teach alternative ways to cope and ask for help in stressful situations.
"As illnesses progress in loved ones, family caregivers become increasingly responsible for hands-on care, such as assisting with bathing and hygiene, as well as cooking, cleaning and managing bills," said Karla Washington, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Family and Community Medicine and lead author of the study. "This extra load of responsibility can cause serious stress in a caretaker's life. While more men are assuming caregiving roles, we found significant gender differences in how the caretaking experience is perceived."
Washington and her colleagues analyzed responses from more than 280 family caregivers. They found that female caregivers reported significantly lower self-esteem, less family support and more negative consequences related to their schedules and health compared to men.
Washington said these findings could be a result of socially constructed gender norms that view women as "natural" caregivers, causing other family members not to feel as obligated to offer them additional help.
"Taking care of sick family members is a responsibility often expected of women," Washington said. "If society views female caregivers as being naturally better at caregiving, other family members might be less likely to think the caregiver needs support, and thus less likely to offer it."
In addition, Washington said it is important to consider that gender norms also could cause men to underreport the challenges they face when delivering care, and both men and women could benefit from interventions that offer more support during such stressful times.
Washington's study, "Gender Differences in Caregiving at End of Life: Implications for Hospice Teams," recently was published in the Journal of Palliative Medicine.
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