Much has been written about the Sandwich Generation — that population of 24 million caregivers who are squeezed between caring for children while simultaneously caring for an older parent. According to a 2013 Pew Research study, 47 percent of people in their 40s and 50s fall into the Sandwich Generation category and one in seven of these adults are providing financial assistance to college-age children and older parents.
While a multitude of parenting books provide information on the difference between raising boys and girls, little has been written on the different challenges we may have in caring for our aging moms compared to caring for our aging dads.
Caring for Both Parents
“In my situation, it has actually been easier to care for my dad because he is more willing to accept my help than my mom,” says Christina Fletcher, a 35-year-old single mom of a 6-year-old daughter who also cares for both her parents while attending nursing school.
Fletcher, who was recently named one of the recipients of a Caring.com Student Caregiver Scholarship award* where she was selected among 1,500 applicants, is caring for parents in their late 50s who have disabilities. Her father suffers from physical limitations due to a heart attack that resulted in his losing 75 percent of his heart function. Her mother lives with debilitating arthritis and atherosclerosis but is also experiencing mental health issues, including chronic depression, due to the sudden and violent death of Fletcher’s younger sister in 2011.
“It is definitely easier for me to deal with my father’s physical limitations and needs than with the dismissive attitude and emotional difficulty I have getting my mom to take her medications or understand she needs more of my help,” Fletcher explained.
Men with dementia are 8 percent more likely to wander and 30 percent more likely to be combative than women.
All caregiving situations are unique and are based on personalities and relationships developed since childhood, but there are some statistical and psychological gender differences about how the Sandwich Generation may approach the caring of our parents.
When it comes to disease prevalence, the Alzheimer’s Association says women have a higher prevalence for developing the disease (65 percent vs. 35 percent). However, men with dementia are 8 percent more likely to wander and 30 percent more likely to be combative. In addition, more males die from various cancers than females and men are 1.5 times more likely to have Parkinson’s disease. Women are twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, have a higher risk of closed angle glaucoma and are diagnosed more frequently with macular degeneration. Heart disease is a non-discriminate disease and still the No. 1 killer of both men and women.
Financially, aging fathers are more communicative about long-term care plans with their adult children. A Northwestern Mutual survey showed older dads are twice as likely as moms to discuss their long-term care wishes and actual plans with an adult child.
But caring for moms may cost caregivers more. According to WISER (Women’s Institute for a Secure Retirement), one-half of our moms age 65 will live to 85, yet 92 percent of them have no retirement savings to cover those 20 bonus years. In addition, 40 percent of older women rely solely on Social Security benefits, ultimately needing the financial support of their older children as they age.
As for where our parents may live as they age, AARP found a few years ago that 89 percent of Americans wanted to live at home as long as possible. Yet, many live in long-term care facilities. The Assisted Living Federation of America shows there is a 7 to 1 ratio of women to men in assisted living facilities and a 10 to 1 ratio in nursing homes.
However, it is not just the disease state or financial situation that becomes a caregiving challenge. The emotional and psychological aspect of caregiving can take its toll as well.
Professor Carol Gilligan in her book, In a Different Voice, writes that men have more problems adjusting to changes and this becomes more significant as they age. She says men are conditioned to be strong, in control and independent.
When talking to fathers about caregiving, the Sandwich Generation needs to emphasize their role in helping their parent maintain independence. While caregivers can serve in a “consulting” role, fathers need to make the final decisions on their long-term care needs. Gilligan also points out it is important to have written facts or information for dads because men tend to connect better visually than verbally.
One commonality among mothers and fathers is they tend be “present-focused.” For instance, if they are still relatively healthy and independent, they may want to know why it is necessary to talk about a long-term care future (even if that future may suddenly happen next week). In these instances, caregivers should provide parents with the financial downside of not planning ahead and emphasize that discussing the plans will ensure older parents are still in control of their future with caregivers acting as their proxy.
Dads may want to maintain control, but they also don’t want to be a burden to their adult children. Moms, on the other hand, want to continue to feel secure and safe about their future. Caregivers can support moms by ensuring the legal documents and financial plans are in place.
Have the Conversation
Essentially, caregivers may face different challenges caring for moms versus dads, but in the end it all comes down to having the family conversation. In fact, it may be easier to have this conversation with parents separately, using tactics and language that work best for each.
On the heels of Fletcher being accepted into nursing school, her father’s heart attack and her mother’s ongoing mental and physical health decline required her to move with her daughter from Michigan to Ohio and into her parents’ home to care for them 24/7.
“At 35, I never envisioned living with my parents and being a full-time caregiver for both of them,” says Fletcher. She reminds herself that she had a relatively carefree first 30 years of life, so taking a pause to care for her parents now is something she feels she should do. She also feels both her father and her daughter have benefited from living in the same home and have a therapeutic effect on each other.
“I think about what will happen when I graduate from nursing school,” says Fletcher. “While we have not yet had a conversation about that, I have started talking to my dad more about putting a plan together.”
*Note: Sherri Snelling served as a senior care expert judge for the 2015 Caring.com Student Caregiver Scholarship Awards.