Saturday, January 14, 2006


One who provides care and assistance to an aged and infirm loved one is known as a caregiver. Because of the great improvements in modern medicine and public health, people are living longer. Many of these elderly suffer chronic ailments and the usual infirmities that go with increasing age. Thus, as the population ages, the need for long-term care and caregivers will increase. With the increasingly high costs of long-term care facilities, more families are assuming the role of caregiver. In the vast number of cases, it is a female who is the primary caregiver-a daughter, daughter-in-law, sister, or niece.
When men do assume the caregiver role they tend to devote far less time to it than women do, and they frequently employ assistance, according to an article that appeared in Modern Maturity, the magazine of the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP). In many instances men assume an indirect and secondary role in caregiving, such as managing finances or doing home repairs because they learn (or are "socialized" in the language of the social sciences) to hold jobs and provide financial support the primary adult male roles.
Women have usually assumed household duties and personal care of elderly family members because these have been the major feminine roles that begin even in childhood with dressing, feeding, and playing with dolls. Because of their roles women are thought to develop more sympathetic reactions to pain and suffering. For this reason they may become more prone to the "compassion trap" -undertaking labors of love that may cause hardship and offer little else than emotional compensation.
Sometimes middle-aged women who have completed childrearing responsibilities, and were about to become free to relax and enjoy life, are compelled to care for a disabled parent-a mother who has fallen and broken her hip or a father diagnosed to have disabling hypertensive disease. The empty nest becomes refilled, and the newly freed woman finds herself once again providing daily care to others: feeding, bathing, cooking, helping, visiting doctor's offices for appointments, providing transportation, giving medicines, watching diets, and always being available.
According to research carried out at Princeton University, the proportion of women engaged in caregiving to older parents and relatives has probably increased in recent years. Sixty-five percent of 50-year-old women in the United States had living mothers in 1980, whereas in 1940 the figure was 37 percent. Further, the average age of caregivers today is 57, with one-third of them over 65 and nearly one-quarter in only fair health themselves.
While some women find the care of their parent(s) personally fulfilling-an opportunity to pay back their childhood nurturing guilt is considered to be the primary reason that many caregivers push themselves to fulfill unrealistic expectations. The dual mistake many make is to assume that they must take care of their parents just as their parents cared for them as children, and that their parents want and expect them to provide round-the-clock care.
Caring for an older person is not the same as caring for a child. A child progresses in development, even if incapacitated in some way. An older person, in most cases, will probably decline. Not all older people are sweet and loveable, and caregivers occasionally fight resentment in caring for their unloving or unloved parents.
There is a misconception that parents want
and expect their children to take them into their homes. When given a choice, most of the elderly prefer to maintain a home separate from their children. They do not want to lose control of their lives and need to remain independent. But most important, they do not want to be a burden. Parents want their children to care about them -- not for them.
Whatever the future development of gender roles in providing support to elderly parents, programs to help caregivers have developed rapidly in the 1980s (note, for instance, the Alzheimer's Society National Headquarters in Chicago, Ill. mentioned in Appendix II), and there is growing attention to financing these through public funds and company benefit programs. Research shows that both those who receive as well as those who give the care may benefit from the following types of assistance: educational training to increase adaptive coping; respite from care activities provided by day-care services or short nursing home stays for the elderly dependent person; and psychotherapy for the caregiver designed to manage feelings of anxiety, guilt, frustration, and depression. Growing public awareness of the burden of responsibility for older family members promises increasing help for caregivers in the future.
A Guide for Long Distance Caregivers. AARP booklet, 1986.
Wood, J. "Caregiver," in Modern Maturity, August-September. 1987.


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