Caring For Aging Parents Still Typically Falls On Women

by Karen Johnson
Originally Published: 
Scary Mommy and Terry Vine/Getty

How many times have you thought to yourself, “Someday when I have more time…” or “When things slow down…” and then you actually look at your life and laugh. Because that’s never going to happen. The exhausting baby/toddler days spill into the school years full of homework and school projects and baseball games and band practice. And then all of a sudden you’re on college tours, you’re dyeing your grays, you have to crack your back when you wake up every morning, and you wonder why you never had time to do that thing you were going to do.

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Now add in caring for your aging parents—a reality for families everywhere. And, like everything else, this is yet another responsibility that typically falls on women’s shoulders.

Women who are mothering their own kids through adolescent drama and learning to drive and high school breakups. Women who often work their own full-time jobs and try to squeeze in a workout or healthy cooking now and then because they actually do want to take better care of themselves. Women who manage the budget and pay the bills and make sure to get the oil changed in the car and take the kids to the dentist and schedule parent-teacher conferences.

And, also, women who must manifest more hours in the day to care for their parents who need their help as they grow older. (Which, to clarify, is something many of us very much want to do.) We love our parents and want to ensure they are properly cared for. But at a time in our lives when we are busier than ever, this responsibility can seem overwhelming, mentally, physically and financially. Especially because it tends to fall on women far more than men.

The Atlantic writer Ada Calhoun recently penned an article that accurately portrayed the “tug-of-war” Gen-X women are stuck in. She tells the story of how on a very emotional, high-stakes day when her 13-year-old son was taking an entrance exam to try to get into a specialized high school, she was also meeting with landlords to find a new apartment for her parents (one of whom has cancer).

“On that day, and just about every day these past few months, I had to choose between caring for one family member or another. With so many crises under way, caring for myself hasn’t really been on the table,” she writes.

However, like most women, she doesn’t really “choose” between either family member, but instead, does it all. She hops from the entrance exam to the apartment tour and back to meet her son.

The one person she doesn’t choose, however, is herself. Because there is no time.

Calhoun’s article explains why caring for their parents is different for Gen-X, including the fact that more women of our generation work full time than our mothers did when they were caring for their own parents so many years ago.

Also, our parents are living longer than previous generations, which, although a blessing, means “more treatments, more medications, more things to be looking out for. It’s a lot of pressure.”

Throw in the steady increase in cost to care for an elderly relative and the fact that many Boomers weren’t great about saving money, and now you’re adding financial stress onto Gen-X women who are trying to save for their own retirement and pay for their kids to go to college.

“Women’s 40s and 50s are ideally a time to find their true calling and focus on themselves,” Amy Goyer, AARP’s national family and caregiving expert and the author of Juggling Life, Work, and Caregiving, says. But when the average caregiver of an aging relative is a 49-year-old working woman, they don’t have time. And that frankly sucks.

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We give so much up during those early baby and toddlers days. So many women put everything on hold, dreaming of the day the kids are in school or at least not attached to our boobs and needing their butts wiped anymore. Dreaming of when everyone is grown and off doing their own thing and we finally can have a moment to do our thing—even if we don’t know what that is yet. So many of us watch our husbands thrive in their careers while we take care of things at home, dreaming that “someday, I’ll get to work on me again.”

Only by the time we have a glimmer of that freedom, we are right back where we started, except we are caring for our parents this time around.

So why is this? Why is yet another responsibility consistently falling on women? AARP confirms that although more men are stepping up these days to take care of children and the elderly, the onus still tends to be placed on women—who are historically seen as more nurturing and who tend to be more willing to put themselves and their careers on the back burner.

An AARP article entitled “When Genders Collide While Caregiving” tells the story of three siblings caring for their aging mother. Only it’s really two sisters who do all the driving, feeding, and catering to her. Their brother insists he can’t take time off work. Yet, he still receives praise from his mother if he calls once a week.

This feels like a slap in the face to his sisters, understandably, and is a common story that ends up dividing siblings as their parents age.

The truth is, family caregiving, whether it’s for children or elderly relatives, is still seen as women’s work—even well into the 21st century. And while women do the bulk of it, they get little to no recognition, as it’s simply expected of them. Hmmm… that story sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Just like when women care tirelessly for their kids with no praise (or even face criticism when their kids don’t behave perfectly) and dads get a ticker-tape parade for merely changing a diaper, the same happens on the other end of the spectrum.

“Female caregivers are typically acknowledged as ‘just doing their duty,’ whereas men tend to be lauded for engaging in even minor care activities,” AARP reports.


And what happens? Women continue to burn themselves out on both ends—caring for their families at home and their parents as well, leaving nothing in the middle but exhaustion, stress, and resentment.

This has to change. We cannot continue to expect women to do it all. It’s unrealistic, unfair, and frankly, we’re tired of living through double standard after double standard our entire lives. We want to care for our parents, just as they cared for us. But we can’t take all of this on too. We can’t be expected to shoulder yet another stressful, emotional responsibility that should be shared with our husbands, brothers, and other male relatives.

So step it up, men. Do not expect the women in your lives to care for everyone on their own. Do your part, (which, by the way, is more than calling your mom once a week), and don’t expect a gold star either. Lord knows we don’t.

And women, please don’t fall into the martyrdom trap. There’s no award at the end for sacrificing yourself. Expect the rest of your family to join you on a level playing field where everyone contributes. Demand it. We only get so many years here on Earth. If you spend every moment of every day caring for others and never for yourself, will you look back and be happy with that life? Will you wish you spent some of your 40s and 50s finding yourself? Finding your calling? Discovering new passions? Or will you resent that you gave all of yourself to everyone else so that there was nothing left but an exhausted, depleted shell who only resembled the person you used to be?

Our parents need us. Just as we will need our kids someday. And that’s one of the beautiful pieces of this circle we call life. But it’s our life too. We can’t forget that.

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