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Dementia – a feminist issue?


Philly HareAs Programme Manager for JRF's Ageing Society work, I know that women are disadvantaged in so many ways as they enter later life. Sexism and ageism can create a 'double whammy'. As Imogen Blood has pointed out; "'Old dears' are typically women. Being patronised, marginalised or made to feel invisible (and not feeling able to challenge or even identify when this is happening) are more of a danger when you have experienced this throughout your lifetime. It can be difficult to begin to demand that your voice be heard in older age if it has not been heard much throughout your life." (Blood 2013)

Within our programme 'Dementia without Walls', we are committed to exploring inequalities associated with dementia – including those faced by women. That is why we were particularly attracted to this proposal.

On a more personal level, I'm also a woman not a man – for better or worse! And dementia is an issue which disproportionally affects (or will affect) not only me but also the women around me. My mother-in-law had dementia – she lived in a nursing home, and almost all of those caring for her were also female. Closer to home, my Mum has cared full time for her own mother, and more recently for her second husband – both had dementia when they were already very frail and in their nineties. My Mum only 'stopped caring' very recently at the age of 84, by which time the effect on her own health had taken its toll.

When I get old I'll be more likely than my brother to have dementia... or to care for someone who does (at least until I'm very old). If I live to 85, most of my peers who are still alive will be women. I will be much more likely than a man of the same age to be living alone. If I am cared for at home, 80% of my carers will be women. If I have to live in a care home or a housing with care scheme, most of the other residents, as well as most of the care staff, will also be women. If I go into hospital, only one in ten of my nurses will be male. Care, and particularly care of people with dementia, brings women of all ages together – as neighbours, friends, relatives, or as paid staff. And there is something wonderful in that.

But as a woman I'm also likely to be affected by so much more than the direct impacts of dementia on myself (potentially) and on those I care for or about. For example, the level of public expenditure on care is also directly relevant to me as a woman: I'm more likely to need care than my brother, and the women who may care for me will have very low pay and low status. Statistically at least, I will also be poorer: my occupational pension and those of my female friends will be much lower than my brother's and his male friends; and, if my husband dies before me, I may find that his pension ends or is significantly reduced (help, I'd better check!). I was well-educated and have had 'good' jobs – but again statistically, gender differences in education, employment and role expectations tend to have been much starker for the 'oldest old' generation (and many older women have had little experience of dealing with financial matters). All these issues can make the life of a woman with dementia even harder.

So for all of these reasons, I'm really engaged with this new project which will start to unpick and bring out into the open the many gender-related issues around dementia.

Philly Hare

Tags: feminism, rights, sexism Written 2014-06-02

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