A report from the May, 2012 meeting of The American Geriatrics Society held in Seattle focused on the differences between reported health issues affecting male and female spousal caregivers. The period of concern for the caregiver’s health covered the time during active caregiving and continued up to three years after the death of his or her spouse.
According to the report, the health of surviving wives suffered more than the health of surviving husbands. A post on the New Old Age Blog titled A Special Burden for Women discusses the findings of University of California, San Francisco, researchers. Not surprisingly, the researchers say that caring for an ailing spouse is extremely difficult emotionally and physically for either gender. However, the researchers discovered that three years after the death of their spouse, surviving wives reportedly fared worse than surviving husbands.
Lead author John Cagle, a research fellow in geriatrics at UCSF, commented on issues that made solid conclusions difficult. He said that, “Women tend to marry men older than themselves, and men generally have more health problems and shorter lives…So it’s typically the woman taking care of the man.” Cagle’s comment would indicate to me that there would be fewer men than women to study.
Another important issue that researchers face is that men and women tend to report caregiving differently. While there are few differences between what men and women reported when they help their spouse with activities such as bathing and dressing, there were gender differences in what was reported as "help" in other areas. In general, women may not report cooking meals, grocery shopping, and doing laundry as “helping” a mate. Most women do these things without thinking of them as out of the ordinary. Men are more apt to report this type of work as help, since for many men this is new activity.
Another twist in the study comes with the fact that women are generally more willing to report health issues and feelings of depression, where as typically, men will either not recognize the signs of illness or depression, or else they feel that they may be viewed as weak if they admit to having concerns. Therefore, many men underreport their health issues.
Researchers also don’t know if the women who reported more health problems were ill before they began caregiving. They also didn’t know if the women had been caregivers prior to taking on the care of their husbands. Since women have traditionally been the primary caregivers for their parents and often their in-laws, it seems to me that many of these women may have spent years as caregivers before their husbands became ill. One could conclude that this may be a contributing cause to the increased reporting of illness in women.
If results are so complicated to interpret, what is the point of these studies? Cagle says that “…we can’t conclude that caring for a dying spouse takes a greater toll on wives, but we can say that they don’t do as well before or after death parts them from their husbands…They’re more at risk…This suggests that women are in greater need of support.”