How U.S. Older Adults Provide Care for Their Aging Parents, Adult Children, and Friends

  • View webcast, “Gender and Intergenerational Transfer of Time Later in Life,” Suzanne Bianchi (Time: 45 min)

(May 2011) Most research on the gender gap in unpaid caregiving in the United States has focused on young families. During the childrearing years, women provide the bulk of child care, although the time men spend caring for their children has increased in recent years.

As part of PRB’s 2010-2011 Policy Seminar series, Suzanne Bianchi, a University of California Los Angeles sociology professor, examined new research on caregiving in later life—a time when men and women may spend their time in similar ways as they enter their retirement years. The study, conducted with Joan Kahn and Brittany McGill of the University of Maryland, explored whether retirement and marital status made a difference in how men and women helped others. Specifically, they set out to learn whether men replaced paid work with time spent helping others after retirement and whether divorced people spent less time caring for kin, reflecting weakened family ties.

The findings shed light on the costs of caregiving and the quality of life of older people, according to Bianchi. While unpaid caregiving economically disadvantages women by keeping them out of the paid labor force, “there’s a flip cost for men,” she said. Men who do not help others may be “socially disconnected” and not integrated into the kind of meaningful relationships important at older ages.

Bianchi and her colleagues used data from the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study (WLS), which has tracked a group of Wisconsin high school graduates from the class of 1957 (born in 1939 or 1940) for more than 50 years. Although this group is predominantly white and includes only those with a diploma, it is representative of about two-thirds of the U.S. population in that age group, Bianchi noted.

At ages 54 and 65, participants were asked about the kind of help they gave their adult children, parents, friends, and neighbors in the previous month. Bianchi and her colleagues found that more than 90 percent helped someone in some way, although women outpaced men by about 5 percentage points. Both men and women were most likely to report helping their adult children.

Among those who had adult children at age 54, 10 percent more women than men provided assistance to them—83 percent of women compared with 73 percent of men. Among those with living parents, the same 10 percentage-point gap separated men and women, with 61 percent of women providing help compared to 51 percent of men.

Only men in first marriages said they helped their children at percentage rates similar to women of any marital status. The share of divorced and remarried women who said they helped their adult children ranged between 75 percent and 85 percent; for divorced and remarried men that share ranged between 60 percent and 72 percent. “Depending on when the divorce took place, these men may not have spent a lot of time living with their children,” said Bianchi. But whether women remarried or not, they remained connected to their children.

More single men and women (who were widowed, divorced, or had never married) provided assistance to friends, neighbors, and co-workers than men and women who were still in first marriages or had remarried, Bianchi reported. This finding reflects important social ties that exist outside of traditional family connections that are not well understood.

The researchers encountered a few surprises when they examined who provided which types of help to whom in four categories—transportation; babysitting for grandchildren; housework, yard work, and repairs; and advice, encouragement, and emotional support. The conventional wisdom is that “when it comes to household work, women do it and men do not,” said Bianchi. But overall more men than women reported doing household work for others, likely in the form of yard work and repairs.

Among people in their 50s with aging parents, more men said they helped their parents with household work than women did. Bianchi suggested that aging parents may be living in their own homes and able to manage daily household chores. The kinds of help they needed were “things guys do like snow shoveling and gutter cleaning,” she said. This periodic assistance provided by sons and sons-in-law may be allowing many older people to live independently, she said. By age 65, more women were providing household help to aging parents than men.

Not surprising, more women than men reported babysitting for grandchildren. But as men moved into their 60s, the gap between men and women narrowed, and considerably more men reported caring for their grandchildren. Bianchi theorized that the grandchildren were older and men might have been more comfortable caring for them, or retired men watched their grandkids together with their wives.

Similar and higher-than-expected shares of both men and women reported providing transportation for others. Bianchi commented that taking people places and waiting for them, such as to a doctor’s appointment or shopping, is something a lot of people do for others.

An interesting finding in the study was that men consistently reported helping more people in more ways after they retired in all categories except emotional support and encouragement to friends, neighbors, and co-workers. Bianchi speculated that this might have been a result of men coaching work colleagues, support that ceased when they were no longer employed.