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Researching women and dementia: Duties or expectations to care?


Prof Liz Peel Dr Rosie Harding According to the Office of National Statistics 11.8 per cent of women in England provide unpaid care, compared to 8.9 per cent of men, and therefore women undertake 58 per cent of unpaid care work for older people (ONS, 2011). In our own (non-representative) sample of 185 people caring for a loved one living with a dementia 69 per cent of carers were women (Harding and Peel, 2013; Peel and Harding, 2014).

While there were many similarities between the caring experiences of women and men, there were also some interesting points of difference. We found that the women who participated in our British Academy funded survey were statistically less likely than men to agree that the health and social care professionals involved with their family member or friend were 'sensitive to my needs' (Harding and Peel, 2013). This raises complex and interesting questions about women's experiences of caring for a person with dementia. Are the perspectives of women caring for a person with dementia, whether that be a partner, parent or friend, being taken seriously?

It is likely that the picture is a very complicated one, mediated by numerous factors including the status of the caring relationship – with heterosexual, middle class, married women caring for a spouse typically afforded most legitimacy by health and social care professionals. Perhaps it is those women who are not in socially and legally recognized relationships with the person with dementia they are caring for that are treated less 'sensitively'. Or, perhaps, it is still the case that women doing caring are assumed to find it easy or natural.

In our research we spoke with both female and male carers – through a survey, focus groups and interviews – and our sense is, in line with many other feminists, that there continues to be an implicit or explicit expectation that it is women who care, in both emotional and practical terms.

It is possible to read our 'duties to care' and 'dementia talking' data from carers through a gendered lens. The women in our focus groups and interviews never felt the need to justify, or account for, why they engaged in caring for their relative, or friend, with a dementia.

Male participants, especially those caring for a parent, on the other hand talked about how their family 'obligations' created the conditions for the caring work they undertook. Derek, who cared for his Mum who had dementia, provides a clear example of this: 'When I actually became my mum's full-time care...I don't expect a medal or anything but the reason I did it was because she's my mum, and it was my duty...I felt, I've got to do this, because she's my mum' (Derek, not his real name).

The personal certainly is political when we consider gender and care work. It is interesting to reflect on the absence of justifying caring work in the accounts of women who participated in our research. Is there (still) a gendered duty to care? Are women really still expected to undertake the lion's share of caring work? More research, and debate, is needed to understand and unpick the range of expectations, experiences and contexts that shape women's and men's experiences of dementia and dementia care.

Harding, R. & Peel, E. (2013) "He was like a zombie": Off-label prescription of antipsychotic drugs in dementia. Medical Law Review, 21(2), 243-277.
Peel, E. & Harding, R. (2014) "It's a huge maze, the system, it's a terrible maze": Dementia carers' constructions of navigating health and social care services. Dementia: The International Journal of Social Research and Practice, 13(5) 642–66.

Professor Elizabeth Peel, Psychology, University of Worcester and Dr Rosie Harding, Birmingham Law School, University of Birmingham

Tags: carers, female roles, workforce Written 2014-09-08

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