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When It Comes to Taking Care of a Sick Spouse, Men Put In Just as Much Time as Women

Every now and again, a study comes out that surprises you even though it shouldn’t. Case in point: New research out of the University of Oxford suggests that — despite endless cliches about malingering baby-men who can’t handle a cold, but never think to ask if their partner is okay — men actually take care of their spouses just as well as women when they’re sick.

This is good news cause we’re all about to get a lot older. Frank Furstenberg, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and co-author of the study, tells me that the issue of the impending aging of society is a serious one in many parts of the world. “We face a slow-moving crisis when it comes to managing medical care,” says Furstenberg “By 2020, we’re going to have about 20 percent of the population over 65, and that number is growing.”

Because of this, Furstenberg believes many people are going to require some level of family assistance, and the first line of family assistance is most often the partner or the spouse. With this in mind — and aware of the cliches referenced above — Furstenberg was interested in researching whether these kinds of gender differences might complicate the arrangement of availability of family support.

Using data from the German Socio-Economic Panel Study, Furstenberg, alongside Dr. Laura Langner of Oxford University, focused on 538 couples in Germany with an average age of 69, where one of them had developed the need for spousal care, between the years 2001 and 2015. “We looked at how male and female caregivers adjusted their hours of care based on the new care need,” says Furstenberg. “This could mean physical needs or doing errands and housework.”

Their findings showed that men increased their care hours as much as women did, resulting in similar levels of care once their partner had become sick. “These similarities were particularly pronounced when a spouse was deemed severely ill, when there was little to no difference in the level of care given,” reported Science Daily. And as Furstenberg tells me, “Surprisingly, we found that men actually increase the time they spend on housework and errands more than women, when their spouse was considered severely ill.”

Unfortunately, when the spouse is unofficially in need of care (according to Furstenberg, in Germany, patient needs must be officially evaluated before they can receive compensation from the state) women spend more time doing housework and errands than men. “This is either because women were already doing more housework before their husband got sick, or men were reluctant in picking up house work,” he says. “It’s possible men would buy off time too [hire someone]. I just don’t know for sure.”

Still, according to Langner, the findings were in sharp contrast to to the division of childcare and housework in midlife. “There could be a number of reasons for this, but a key factor may be that in later life many people retire and no longer have the responsibility of work, so are able to focus on other priorities … that their spouse may have been doing already,” she told Science Daily.

Furstenberg seems slightly more optimistic with regard to younger generations. “We couldn’t get enough cases to analyze a younger group because not enough of them were officially registered as sick,” he tells me. “But if I were to speculate, we would probably find the same thing.”

That’s one of the things they want to look at next — as well as “collaboration patterns.” “Obviously when you have an ill spouse, children play a part,” Furstenberg says. “We don’t know how that actually works in practicality or how relations with children differ between men and women — we don’t have data.”