Elayne Clift

Women have always been caregivers. Whether looking after small children, elders, other family members or friends in small communities, tending to others in urban settings with limited support systems, or acting as professional caregivers in institutional settings, we have been the primary providers of physical care and emotional support in a variety of settings and circumstances throughout the ages.

Today that remains true, and being the main caregiver may be more vital than ever. As women have children later and elders live longer, we are challenged by competing demands and shrinking resources. Many of us have elderly parents living (perhaps with us) in a time of growing dementia or increasing frailty; others have parents who need supervision in nursing homes of dubious quality. At the same time, we are parenting children who quite often have their own physical or mental health challenges. We may also have spouses in failing health who need our attention. And who among us would not be there for an ill friend or family member?

Whether we are younger women focused on child care, older women charged with “being there” for a sick spouse or parent, or women in the Sandwich Generation who are called upon to take care of children and parents simultaneously, many of us find ourselves in the caregiver role, well before we expected to be there and often feeling less prepared than we wish.  We are all caregivers at some stage of our lives, and we all have stories to tell about what that has meant for us.

It’s important to emphasize women as caregivers because while men and women are both likely to fulfill caregiving roles, female caregivers spend many more hours providing care. They spend an average of 680 hours per year providing care, 160 more hours on average than male caregivers. Female caregivers may spend as much as 50% more time providing care than male caregivers.

That’s partly because men tend to manage care rather than administer it. A man is more likely to hire someone to help with tasks such as bathing or dressing or other daily activities because they are not as comfortable as women providing personal care.

According to the Family Care Giving Alliance, 80% of long-term care in the US is provided by unpaid or informal caregivers. Of these, 61% are women, most have reached middle age, and 59% have jobs.  The average caregiver is a 49-year old woman, caring for a mother who doesn’t live with her. She is married and employed.

An estimated 15.5 million caregivers provided 17.7 billion hours of unpaid care for an aging family member with dementia alone in 2013. Most of these caregivers for aging loved ones were daughters and daughters-in-law. The value of all the informal care that women provide ranges from $148 billion to $188 billion annually. Women, who provide the majority of informal care to spouses, parents, parents-in-law, friends and neighbors, play many roles while caregiving—from hands-on health provider & care manager to surrogate decision-maker and advocate.

Family caregivers (age 50 and older) who leave the workforce to care for a family member, lose on average over $304,000 in wages and benefits over their lifetime. For women, the amount is higher. Women caregivers are less likely than others to attend to their own health and self-care needs. They often suffer from stress, isolation, fatigue, and depression. Thirty-five percent of them report finding it difficult to make time for themselves, and 29% report difficulty balancing work and family issues.

Because of these issues, I compiled a collection of prose and poetry by women caregivers that give testimony to what caretaking has meant for contemporary women, whose lives are complex enough to begin with.  The anthology is called TAKE CARE: Tales, Tips and Love from Women Caregivers. Here is an excerpt by Kate Gray called “All the Longing Left in the Body.”

“It could be you stopping me. It could be you quite a few years from now, half of your face a little lower than the other, your hair turned gray and your clothes neatly tucked. You would probably do the same thing she did in the women’s restroom, if you were in her shoes.

“Sorry,” she said as she passed me in the entrance. “That’s my husband in the other stall. Don’t mind him.” She was going to her car. Her husband was in the stall large enough for a wheelchair. “When the woman returned to the restroom she said, “Thank you for understanding.” In her hand was a blue, waffled diaper.

“It could be any of us, waiting outside a bathroom stall, overcoming the body’s instinct to grimace at the acrid smells, taking a diaper much bigger than the one used for an infant, carrying it carefully, disposing of it. It could be any of us, bending down to hug our spouse or partner, wrap our arms under their arms, straighten our legs to lift the two of us to standing. It could be you loving someone so much that you take him into the women’s room with you, that you find a way to make a dance out of changing a diaper, that you don’t mind doing what you have to do, as long as you are two together.”

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Elayne Clift is a writer in Saxtons River, Vt. She is currently searching for a publisher for the anthology.

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