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Single with Ailing Parents: Who Cares?

Full-time job and full-time care?

When a parent is seriously ill or in need of sustained care for any reason, who steps in to provide that care? How do the care-providers manage the other commitments in their lives, including the need to make a living?

We already know that single women and men do more than their share of long-term care. That's what Ursula Henz found when she looked at the responses of a nationally representative sample of more than 9,000 British adults to the question, "Do you currently or have you ever regularly looked after someone, for at least three months, who is sick, disabled, or elderly?" Singles had done so more often than married people.

The kinds of studies that question thousands of people are not the same studies that delve into the individual and family dynamics that are in play when someone assumes such challenging responsibilities. Roona Simpson pursued the qualitative approach to understanding the care-work provided by 37 always-single women from England and Scotland. All were older than 35. During in-depth interviews, Simpson asked about different kinds of care-work that the women provided. Here I'll focus on what she learned about the women in her sample who had cared for ailing parents.

The majority of the single women in her sample owned their own home and "generally experienced living alone positively and in some cases with great pleasure." So what happened to their living arrangements when they took on the care of a seriously ill parent? Some had their parents move in with them, or helped them relocate nearby. One of the women had moved out of her parents' home when she was 17. Then, three years later, her mother became terminally ill so she moved back in, then continued living there after her mother's death to care for her father until he died. All the while, she maintained a full-time job. A few of the other single women had already been living with a parent, and maintained that living arrangement once the parent became ill.

For those of us interested in singlism, an especially prickly question is the issue of who is expected to do the better portion of the care-work when there are several grown children, including one or more who are single and one or more who are married. Simpson found that "the expectation that caring for dependent family members is the duty particularly of spinsters, regardless of other commitments, is enduring and pervasive." (She is not using the word spinster in a derogatory way but is instead reclaiming it, the way the GLBT community reclaimed the word queer.)

Some of the individual stories were telling. One of the single women, Wendy, had a brother and two sisters, all of whom were married. One of her sisters told Wendy that she should give up her job to care for mom. Wendy needed her job to support herself. She continued working full-time, but arranged to stay with her mother three days a week. During the year of her mother's illness, Wendy had a total of four days to herself.

Nora was a single woman in her 40s, pursuing a degree in London, when her mother became ill. Nora traveled to Yorkshire to spend five weeks caring for her mother. Then she asked her two sisters and three brothers (all married) to work with her to develop a rotation so that they could all take turns providing care. One of her brothers said, "Look, you haven't got a family, we've got families, it should be your job." Nora returned to London.

The single women who cared for their seriously ill parents often did so at considerable personal cost. Simpson found, though, that they rarely mentioned that: "Overwhelmingly, the women who had looked after parents spoke about this in terms which indicated both their willingness and pleasure in being able to do so."

When my mother was seriously ill, two of us "kids" were single and two were married. We each lived over a hundred miles away. When it became clear that she was unlikely to recover, we worked out a schedule so that one of us would always be there with her. (My father had died years before.) When it got to the end of each particular block of time that I had planned to spend with her, I was, in a way, looking forward to getting away from the aura of impending death that permeated that home. I'd drive the 377 miles back to my own home (then in Virginia). Before it was time for me to return, though, I'd just want to be with her again. So I'd get in the car and drive the 377 miles once more.

I wasn't the only one who felt that way. Often there was more than one of us siblings there at a time. We did not do battle over who was obligated to provide the care; we all wanted to be there. All this happened during the summer, the three months when I, as a college professor, had the most freedom to come and go. I don't know what would have happened if my mother had remained seriously ill for years instead of months.


Henz, U. (2006). Informal caregiving at working age: Effects of job characteristics and family configuration. Journal of Marriage and Family, 68, 411-429.

Simpson, R. (2003. Contemporary spinsters in the new millennium: Changing notions of family and kinship. London School of Economics, Gender Institute. New Working Papers Series.

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