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Caring For Sick Spouse Prompts Older Women to Retire Much Sooner Than Men

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Working wives in late midlife are five times more likely to retire early to care for ill or disabled husbands than wives who are not caregivers, according to a new study by Cornell University sociologists. However, the study found, when men are caregivers, they are slower to retire than those who are not taking care of their wives.

"How much caregiving influences whether an adult in late midlife will retire soon or not, however, largely depends on the strength of the relationship between the worker and the person needing caregiving," explains Marin Clarkberg, an assistant professor of sociology at Cornell and one of the co-authors of the new study. "Caring for a spouse has the strongest — and in the case of men, the only significant — impact on shaping retirement timing."

The study, which is based on the master's thesis of co-author Emma Dentinger, a Cornell doctoral candidate, used data from 763 employees and retirees, ages 50 to 72, from the 1994-95 wave of the Cornell Retirement and Well-Being Study. The sample was randomly selected from six large employers in metropolitan and non-metropolitan areas of upstate New York. The study is published in the October issue on care and kinship of The Journal of Family Issues (Vol. 23:7, pp. 857-879).

"In our rapidly aging society, as much as 80 percent of care to elderly and disabled Americans is performed by families," says Dentinger. "We sought to determine how gender and the type of informal caregiving that late midlife workers provide influence the timing of retirement."

The researchers found that caring for a spouse had a far more significant effect on a woman's decision to retire than caregiving for anyone else, including parents. Indeed, of the respondents, almost half the women and slightly fewer men were most likely to be caring for or had cared for elderly parents. In general, the closer the relationship between the caregiver and the person being cared for, the greater the influence on retirement decisions. Unlike women, however, men who are caregivers are slower to retire than men who are not, the study found. These male caregivers reported not only higher household incomes than their female counterparts but also less satisfaction from their work.

"The husbands seem to delay their retirement, therefore, for financial reasons, rather than a greater work commitment or a desire to escape their family life," Clarkberg says. The Cornell researchers point out that their findings cannot necessarily be applied to the baby boom generation. "The baby boom generation played a very significant role in transforming gender-role attitudes and female employment patterns. As it moves into caregiving roles, we may witness new struggles as couples and families negotiate informal caregiving roles in the context of retirement decisions," Clarkberg concludes.

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