Article by Jan King
Nearest but not Necessarily Dearest
A study of older mothers in the Boston Massachusetts area, recently published in The Gerontologist, shows that traditional expectations of who will care for elderly mothers haven’t changed much since the early years of the last century. Then, as now, daughters are expected to step into the breach when things go wrong. In my own family, my mother’s aunt, the youngest daughter, stayed at home to care for her ageing parents and never married. She became, by all accounts, a bitter old woman, and no wonder.
But there’s a subtle yet important difference between then and now. Elderly mothers know perfectly well who they would prefer to care for them, but they don’t always get their way. These days, thanks to distance and the fact that most children of elderly parents work, the favourite child is not always the one able to take on the burden of making sure mum is OK.
According to one of the authors of the study, Dr Karl Pillemer, the deciding factor is both geography and gender. ‘If you live closer, you’re vastly more likely to have caregiving thrust upon you,’ he says, ‘and if you’re the nearest daughter, it’s really likely.’ In fact, daughters were twice as likely to be care-givers to their mothers than sons, and children living within a two-hour drive were six times likelier to provide care for her than children living further away.
Care-givers are the working baby boomer daughters.
You might think that the deciding factor would be which child was closest emotionally to their mother or who had had the most support from her growing up, or who had the fewest demands on their time. But those factors paled into insignificance against the gender factor. And, guess what – the care-giving daughter is usually a working baby-boomer. Even more interestingly, if mothers are not cared for by their preferred daughter, they are more apt to suffer from depression.
So despite all the advances in gender equality since the 1960’s, it seems that when it comes to caring for mum, caring is still predominantly womens’ work.