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Dementia is a feminist issue. Why would I say this?


Professor June AndrewsIn the UK 61% of people with dementia are female. They seem to think it is because women live longer and dementia is related to age, and of course that is true. But there is also the issue of stress and dementia in women.

First remember that dementia is not a disease, but the symptom of a range of diseases the commonest of which is Alzheimer's. The thing that often gets missed is that unlike other diseases, the severity of the symptoms is not always directly related to the severity of the underlying disease. It seems that the symptoms are made worse by struggling with depression, loneliness, poor diet, and lack of exercise.

These stressors are worse in people who are fewer resources.

Guess who has fewer resources in old age? Yes that would be older women. The current generation of older women, particularly if they were married, often depended on a man's occupational pension after 65 even though they worked themselves to the bone at home, bringing up children and keeping the house as a haven for their partners. The logic was that the one who was worth less in the work place (yes, women again) would stay at home to save the couple paying for child care and housework. Until relatively recent times it was possible for the husband to divorce his wife without reference to her unwaged contribution to the family resources, leaving her in poverty in old age even if he was still alive.

Secondly there is research that show stress in midlife is a significant cause of dementia in later life women, and women's lives in the last century were more stressful in many cases than men's.

But research shows other ways in which women currently would be disproportionately affected by dementia and some of them are not immediately obvious, until you point them out.

  • Care workers in dementia care are low waged and often not held in high esteem, which is reflected in their working conditions, and they are mainly women
  • When an older woman has a husband with dementia she often has the life skills to care for him, so he is more likely to end his days in reasonable comfort at home, especially as she is probably a little bit younger than him
  • When an older woman has dementia, the reverse is sometimes true, which is another reason why a disproportionate number of residents in care homes are women
  • Men are carers for their elderly parents of course, but the majority of this work falls on female descendants, daughters, granddaughters and nieces
  • Midlife stress raises the likelihood of dementia in women, and older women have often experienced stresses that we will never know...how recently did unmarried women have their children ripped away from them in an atmosphere of violence and disgrace? What other secrets do they carry about miscarriages that could not be discussed, or abortions?

It is really important that what is said here is not misrepresented as an angry feminist diatribe from someone who hates men and refuses to recognise their contribution, which is often as heroic as ours.

However, the older ladies we care for now, in their eighties and nineties were the pioneers who did without a lot of the benefits that they subsequently won for us; maternity leave and allowances, equal rights at work, laws that worked against violence and rape, recognition of the need for education, decent sanitary products, washing machines and disposable nappies.

God bless these women and let us keep them safe from harm. And allow me to say that for the next thirty years at least...dementia is a feminist issue.

(Alzheimer's Research Trust http://www.alzheimersresearchuk.org/dementiaFAQ).

Professor June Andrews, Dementia Services Development Centre, University of Stirling

Tags: female roles, feminism, sexism Written 2014-08-05

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