The University Record, January 15, 2001

Study: Elderly women with disabilities given less home care

By Valerie Gliem
Health System Public Relations

A U-M study has found that elderly women with disabilities--whether married or single--receive fewer hours of care from their family members than their male counterparts.

Women, the traditional family caregivers, may not be given the attentive care they often provide to others when their physical condition worsens in old age, a new U-M study finds.

The research team found that elderly women with disabilities—whether married or single—received fewer hours of care from family members than their male counterparts.

The study, published in December in The Journal of the American Medical Association and led by Steven Katz, associate professor of internal medicine, investigated the gender differences in receipt of informal home care—generally described as care that is unpaid and administered by family members—for elderly men and women with disabilities.

“In the next 50 years, more and more disabled elderly people will be living in communities where they need the support of friends and family,” Katz says. “This also leaves health-care providers and health policy-makers with the responsibility of finding the best ways to meet their needs. This study aims to provide more information about who needs help most.”

The results of surveys from 3,109 elderly people showed that, generally, women receive about one-third fewer hours of informal home care than their male counterparts. Even married women with disabilities received many fewer hours of care than older married men. Disabled married women received about 80 percent more informal home care hours than did disabled women living alone, while married disabled men received about 230 percent more care than did disabled men living alone.

The results suggested that the disparity is likely due to sociocultural factors rather than physical limitations of the husbands.

Older women also are more likely to have limited financial resources, Katz says. The study showed that nearly 1.3 million disabled women age 70 and older living alone had a net worth of less than $30,000. That compares with 180,000 disabled men age 70 and older who were living alone and had a net worth of less then $30,000.

The study also found that female children were the most likely to be the primary caregivers of disabled women, whereas wives played the primary care role for disabled men. Children played an important caregiving role even among married disabled women.

The data for the study were taken from the Health and Retirement Study, funded by the National Institute on Aging and conducted by the Institute for Social Research (ISR). In the survey program, 20,000 adults from across the United States are interviewed every two years about their economic status, health, family information and how much time people spend with them.

Because of the national scope of the survey, the researchers believe this study provides a true representative snapshot of the care of older people with disabilities across the United States.

“The big message,” Katz says, “is that we, as physicians, are being asked to identify populations that are vulnerable with regard to disability. This study shows that providers can’t assume that their female patients are getting everything they need.”

Also working on the study were Kenneth Langa, assistant professor of internal medicine and an ISR faculty associate, and Mohammed Kabeto, health science research associate.