Plenty of research on gender roles among older couples has found women do the bulk of housework even if both spouses have similar amounts of time available for domestic chores, the study team notes. Less clear, however, is whether men take on more caregiving or housework when women get sick.
For the current study, researchers followed 538 older couples from 2001 to 2015 to look for connections between declining health in one spouse and shifts in the amount of time devoted to caregiving or household duties for the other.
“Male caregivers were just as responsive towards their partner’s onset of illness as female caregivers,” said study co-author Laura Langner of the University of Oxford in the UK.
“This stands in sharp contrast to the division of caregiving (i.e. childcare) and housework in mid-life,” Langner said by email.
When a spouse became ill, men increased the amount of time they spent on caregiving each week by roughly the same amount as women did, resulting in similar care hours regardless of which spouse was sick, researchers report in The Journals of Gerontology: Series B. For men, the increase was much greater when their wives were seriously ill than when they needed less care.
However, 30 percent of male caregivers had outside help, compared with 18 percent of female caregivers.
And housework was a different story.
Men with ill partners increased their errands and housework by 4.4 hours more each week than women did when their spouses fell ill, the study found, but that was largely because women were already putting in more hours on housework.
In the absence of a sick spouse, women spent an average of 12 hours more than men on housework. So once husbands became ill, wives still did 7.4 more hours of housework a week than the men with sick spouses.
One limitation of the study is that men tend to exaggerate how much time they spend on housework, the authors point out.
“This system marks Germany as a ‘communitarian’ society, whereas the United States is ‘individualistic,’ leaving responsibility for care up to the individual and family,” Levine, who wasn’t involved in the study, said by email.
Almost half of family caregivers in the United States handle medical tasks such as monitoring medications (including injections and infusions), providing wound care after surgery or for diabetes wounds, monitoring medical equipment such as oxygen tanks or motorized lifts, preparing special diets, managing incontinence, dealing with behavior problems and more, Levine said.
“These tasks require a level of expertise that goes far beyond household chores and errands,” Levine added. “Perhaps in the German system trained professionals make home visits to provide this level of care.”
Still, the results suggest that traditional gender roles don’t prevent men from taking on a caregiving role when a wife is ill, the study authors note.
“The gender gap in life expectancy is closing, suggesting that many more men will be called upon to care for their partners,” Langner said. “In light of our findings, women won’t have to worry that their partners won’t care for them if they are in need of care.”