Are women burdened more when illness strikes a couple?
March 13, 2000 (Philadelphia) -- Fern Zeigler, head of a chapter of a
national support group for caregiving spouses and partners, knows why the women
in such support groups are stressed out. She's been there. "As a woman, I
expect to be able to handle everything myself -- work, home, husband, kid,"
says Zeigler, who directs the King of Prussia, Penn., Well Spouse Foundation.
"I find it difficult to ask for help. I think that I should be strong and
not burden anyone else."
Zeigler's pattern -- asking too much of herself and not enough of others --
is hardly unusual. A recent study suggests that many women who face illness,
whether their own or that of a spouse, feel a sense of overwhelming
responsibility. And that?s one reason why women tend to suffer emotionally more
than men when serious illness strikes.
From its first year of publication, GH has urged readers to live healthfully
— to take "a walk before breakfast" (1885), "eat more fish" (1932), and get "at
least eight hours of sleep" (1933). The tips here, whether from our early days
or fresh from the latest journals, have one thing in common: They are based on
the best expertise of their time.
The study, published in the January 2000 issue of Social Science and
Medicine, looks at the ways couples adjust during the first year after
surgery for colon cancer. It found that women who have colon cancer or who care
for spouses with the same ailment suffered greater emotional upset and felt
less satisfaction in their marriages than men in the same situations. The
study's authors -- Laurel Northouse and colleagues at the University of
Michigan School of Nursing -- noted that women who took care of a partner
reported even greater stress than women who were sick themselves and receiving
care from a spouse.
The reason? Northouse and her co-authors suggest that though women are more
comfortable disclosing their emotional distress to others, they are already
stretched thin by their day-to-day activities both inside and outside of family
life. When illness is added to the load, it can easily become too much. Because
women are generally expected to be responsible for the care of others, the
findings suggest, they also have greater difficulty seeking and accepting help
from family and friends when they are thrust into the roles of either patient
Experts on how families adjust to illness say their observations mirror the
study's findings. "Caregiving fits with female role socialization, and
therefore many women take to it quite a bit more naturally than do men,"
says Susan McDaniel, Ph.D., of the departments of family medicine and
psychiatry at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry in
Rochester, N.Y. "They are in danger of serious burnout because others step
back and let them do all the work themselves, and because they tend to reject
help from others."
The Road Back From Burnout
The perceptions of friends and family also may determine how much help is
extended to people of either gender. "Because men who do any significant
kind of caregiving are often seen by family and friends as heroic, they are
more likely to be offered social support and tangible assistance by them,"
says Carol Levine, M.A., Director of the Families and Health Care Project of
the United Hospital Fund of New York City and the long-time caregiver for her
neurologically impaired husband. Women, says Levine, may feel "abandoned
and isolated" in comparison.