By Dr Mark McCann
Older men have been getting a bad press.
Women are admitted to residential and nursing homes at a greater rate than men of the same age and health. There is an assumption that the reason for this gender difference is that older men are less willing than older women to care for their dependent partners: that for cultural or personal reasons ‘old men don’t do caring’.
Our study, published in Age & Ageing, shows that this is probably not the case. Using the Northern Ireland Longitudinal Study to assess the risk of admission to a care home for 20,000 couples aged 65 years or older, we found that women were 36% more likely than men to be admitted to a care home during the six years of the study but that this gender difference was entirely explained by the differences in the partner’s age.
There is, on average, a five year age difference between partners. Husbands tend to be older than their wives by around five years, and this pattern has appeared for generations. Where an older person – man or woman – has a younger partner, they are more likely to be supported in their own home and therefore less likely to enter a care home. As one’s spouse gets older, the ability to provide physical support is reduced and the risk of admission to a care home increases. Men will tend to have younger and healthier partners while similarly aged women will tend to have older and less able partners, placing them at greater risk of admission.
Informal care for people in later years often focuses on providing support with day to day activities; cooking, cleaning, taking baths and so on; domestic household and nursing duties which were traditionally considered feminine roles. For older people today, who were born in the 1910s, 20s, 30s etc. there were much stronger gender stereotypes stating that men less often cooked, cleaned etc. There was an assumption that these stereotypical roles would persist throughout life, and older men would be either unwilling or unable to cook, clean and look after a house and their partner in later years. This study shows it may be incorrect to assume a gender difference in willingness to provide care, advanced age prevents older husbands from performing caring duties. Age – rather than preference – leads to less caring from older men.
It’s good to remember how important caring for loved ones can be for their long term health. While residential and nursing homes, community nursing and home helps are essential services to safeguard the health of the older population, their contribution to overall wellbeing pales in comparison to the care and support provided every day by friends and family. The change in life expectancy, divorce rates, and the numbers of older people living alone in future will have important consequences for the amount of support older people have in their homes, and the amount of support they will need from formal services such as care homes.
Dr Mark McCann is a Research Statistician in the Institute of Child Care Research at Queen’s University Belfast. He previously worked at the Centre for Public Health at Queen’s. His research interests include mortality and admissions to care homes for older people, mental health, drug & alcohol misuse, and using administrative data for research. He is co-author of ‘Gender differences in care home admission risk’ along with Dr Dermot O’Reilly and Dr. Michael Donnelly of the Centre for Public Health, which has been published by Age and Ageing journal.