Men take care of their spouses just as well as women, new research suggests

August 11, 2018, University of Oxford

Men respond to their spouse's illness just as much as women do and as a result are better caregivers in later life than previous research suggests, according to a new Oxford University collaboration.

The study, published in Journals of Gerontology, Series B, is good news for our increasingly stretched adult care services, which have become more reliant on patients' family and for support. Conducted with peers from the University of Pennsylvania, the research sits in contrast to previous studies on spousal caregiving, which found that female caregivers tend to be more responsive. However, the new results reveal that men are just as responsive to a partner's illness, as women.

Using data from the German Socio-Economic Panel Study, the research carried out by Dr. Langner of Oxford University and Professor Frank Furstenberg of the University of Pennsylvania, focused on 538 couples in Germany with an average age of 69, where one of them had developed the need for spousal care, between 2001-2015, and looked at how caregivers adjusted their hours in response to the new care need: whether directly responding to their physical needs or performing errands and housework.

The findings show that men increased their care hours as much as women did, resulting in similar levels of care once their partner became ill. These similarities were particularly pronounced when a spouse was deemed severely ill, when there was little to no difference in the level of care given.

Perhaps surprisingly, when their spouse is severely ill, men also increase the time they spend on housework and errands, more than women. However, at lower levels of spousal care need—when a spouse is only slightly unwell, women still spend more time doing housework and errands than men—because they already did more housework and errands prior to the disease onset.

There were also significant differences in levels of care given, for couples where the spouse was only unofficially seen to be 'in need of care'. However, these differences disappeared in homes where no other household help was provided, when regardless of gender, male or female, spouses stepped up to care for each other.

Dr. Laura Langner, Research Fellow at Nuffield College, Oxford and ESRC Future Research Leader, said: 'Our results suggest that gender differences in spousal caregiving in old age are not as pronounced as previously thought. Past studies had numerous limitations, which we could overcome with our data.

'We found that, unlike many previous studies on caregiving in later life—male caregivers were just as responsive towards their partner's onset of illness as female caregivers. This stands in sharp contrast the division of caregiving (i.e. childcare) and housework in mid-life. There could be a number of reasons for this, but a key factor may be that in later life many people retire and no longer have the responsibility of work, so are able to focus on other priorities—that their spouse may have been doing already'.

Discussing the potential future implications of the research for patients and services, she adds: 'People are living longer, meaning that we have an increasingly dependent aging population and we face an elderly care cost problem. Reforms are likely to continue reducing more expensive institutionalised care, and increase cheaper home care. With the gender gap in life expectancy closing, and children becoming less available to care for their parents, it is likely that many more men will be called upon to care for their partners. But, our findings at least suggest that women won't have to worry that their partners are not up to the job of caring for them, should they need to.'

The team intend to build on the findings by applying the research approach to other countries and assessing how the results compare.

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