Whether a brother and sister are working to identify care options for an aging parent, or two spouses are at odds with each other about what late retirement should look like, it might be gender differences that are playing an underlying role in the conflict.
While understanding how men and women approach making decisions isn’t an exact science, some research suggests that there are fundamental differences in the way women process and work toward solving a problem compared to men.
Research also suggests that these fundamental differences may be the underlying cause for some of the most common relationship problems that exist between men and women (as author John Gray pointed out in his book Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus). The more difficult the decision, the higher the likelihood of conflict.
When you consider a decision like care options for a spouse or aging parent, tension can quickly rise.
Of course, when we talk about gender differences and how they affect decision-making, we are talking about tendencies, not absolutes. These observations go beyond simple stereotyping in that they have been well-verified through research.
Although there are key differences between the way men and women might make difficult decisions, understanding those differences can provide balance and equip you with ways to approach difficult conversations with those who make decisions differently than you do. Here’s a look at how gender differences play a role in decision-making and how to apply them to health care decisions.
How the Male and Female Brain Are Different
Studies have shown that there are numerous physical differences between the male and female brains. According to an article in Scientific American, women have a thicker corpus callosum, which is the bridge of nerve tissue that connects the left and right sides of the brain and allows women to use both sides of their brains to solve problems. Men predominantly use the left side of their brains.
In general, the left hemisphere is in charge of performing logic computations and processing facts. The right hemisphere is dominant in processing visual imagery and interpreting context. This different brain structure can lead men to be more mission- and task-oriented while women are more likely to be discovery-oriented, ready to adjust their initial goals if this results in a more satisfying outcome.
According to researchers, women are more likely to use an interpersonally oriented decision-making style and ask other people for support and advice when making or delegating decisions. Women place a significant amount of value on relationships and tend to enjoy sharing the exploration of relevant concerns and the challenge of balancing multiple interests. They engage in collaboration and consensus-building, not only to make sound decisions but also to arrive at a fair decision that benefits all involved. Research shows that when the pressure is on, women become risk-alert, take time to weigh the contingencies, and often are more interested in smaller wins that are more guaranteed.
Research shows that men are more likely than women to rely upon their instincts and intuition to make quick decisions. When men hear concerns or questions, they tend to think they are being asked for a plan of action and a solution. When women take time to dive deeper into understanding why a problem exists, men may view this as delaying the process.
How Gender Can Play a Part in Deciding Family Caregiving Roles
Women continue to make up a majority of those known as family caregivers, but in recent years, this norm is shifting. Today, roughly 40% of family caregivers of adults are men.
Often in logical problem-solver mode, men help loved ones with a range of activities, such as driving, shopping, home maintenance, and managing financial matters. But traditional gender roles often look to the women in the family to step up and provide more assistance with personal care activities, such as escorting their loved one to the toilet or helping with bathing — often because of qualities like empathy, sensitivity, gentleness, and calmness. Women usually occupy the role of family caregivers, often for long periods while taking care of a number of family members (children, grandchildren, parents, and spouses) at the same time and/or successively.
Although male caregivers do assist with personal care activities (like visiting the restroom and showering), they report greater discomfort and difficulty than women, possibly because they have less experience performing these activities. In fact, over half of male family caregivers find it moderately to very difficult to help loved ones with their personal, intimate care needs.
Women tend to be concerned they will be looked at negatively if they don’t provide care directly, and research suggests that this negative stigma very much exists in today’s society. Research has also shown that daughters often feel responsible for elderly relatives — “But who else is going to do it?” — and also that they feel their legitimacy and affection are questioned if they look for alternative sources of care.
Although an increasing number of men have stepped up to become family caregivers, research has shown that female caregivers may spend as much as 50% more time providing care than male family caregivers.
Women and men cope differently with the stress of being a caregiver. Women feel greater sadness and anxiety about caring for a loved one who needs increasing support — often mourning the loss of what once was — and they are more likely to seek emotional support (by attending a caregiver support group, for example). In fact, women are more than twice as likely as men to say that they would benefit from talking to someone about their caregiving experience.
Male family caregivers are more likely than female family caregivers (37% and 2%, respectively) to arrange for outside services, such as nurses, home care aides, or Meals on Wheels. However, they are less likely to access support groups: Less than 10% of male caregivers reach out for help, advice, or comfort. Although research shows that compared to women caregivers, men faced lower levels of depression, strain, and psychological distress, it may be that male caregivers simply underreport the level of burden they experience because they are less likely to share these feelings with others.
Although there are plenty of male caregivers stepping up to provide excellent care for their parents, research shows that sons reduce their caregiving efforts when they have a sister while daughters increase theirs when they have a brother.
How to Apply to Family Caregiving Decisions
1. Bring up the conversation early.
Ideally, before either parent needs care. Oftentimes, families wait until they’re in the midst of a crisis to decide who will care for Mom and Dad. This can make conversations more emotionally charged and make the decision-making process feel rushed. Keep in mind that different family members will have had different exposure to the amount of help a parent may need. For those providing less direct care in the family, this can take time to understand.
Instead of waiting until you have to consider other options, as soon as your parent begins to have noticeable changes in health or struggle with activities of daily living, initiate regular family meetings.
2. Flip the familiar scripts.
Many family members, especially aging parents, may have fixed beliefs — that a daughter should take them to medical appointments, for example, while a son fixes the house and pays their bills. If these arrangements don’t suit your siblings’ availability, willingness, or talents, devise an alternative division of the caregiving labors.
3. Seek support.
Regardless of gender, all caregivers experience emotional, financial, and physical effects associated with caregiving. Be proactive in finding a network of support to protect yourself from the stress of feeling unprepared and overwhelmed. Explore your respite care options, and try to give time to yourself guilt-free for your own well-being.
4. Consider that a family member doesn’t have to provide care.
Ideas about how to care for elders vary depending on many factors, including individual families and cultural attitudes. But sometimes the perceived expectations just aren’t realistic.
Professional care might be necessary for the safety of your loved one because of the changes in your relationship with a parent when becoming a caregiver or challenges finding enough time to provide the support your loved one needs. Considering in-home care or moving a loved one to assisted living or memory care ensures a parent has the support in place they need.
5. Talk about interests, not solutions.
In Deborah Tannen’s book about male-female differences in the business world, Talking From 9 to 5, she writes: “Often women want to talk about problems and get annoyed with men who want to solve them. … Men tend to take complaints as requests for solutions.” So when it comes to shared decision-making, rather than jumping to what you think should happen, talk about what’s important to you about any decision that’s made.
How to Navigate Health Care Decisions with Family
Whether you’re deciding to buy a house with an in-law suite or to move Mom, Dad, or a spouse into a senior living community, understanding these gender differences can help you understand why your brother might all of a sudden want to be very hands-on with care decisions about your mom or why your father might ask you to give him one more year living at home.
Just like gender differences can play a role in how a family approaches decisions, so can age differences.
To learn more, download our eBook, The Role Age and Gender Play in Making Health Care Decisions for Aging Parent.