Recently, a nine-year-old house guest ascending our carpeted stairs wondered aloud whether we "even had a vacuum cleaner." Yes, we do, but no one has run it on the stairs recently. My husband has suffered from constant headaches for 36 years, and, as he approaches retirement, it is getting harder for him to just do normal stuff.
Health problems plus age equal a dirty house. Or do they? Claudia Geist and Jennifer Tabler recently published a study entitled, “Somebody has to DUST! Gender, health, and housework in older couples.” That is, they added gender to the health problems plus age equation. One of their findings is quite egalitarian: health problems seem to give older people a pass on housework, regardless of gender. But here’s the rub: older women only get a pass on housework if they have serious health problems—otherwise, they clean more than their husbands.
Among younger couples, women do the lion’s share of housework, so what makes Geist and Tabler's finding about older couples remarkable? Namely, it allows us to see how gender matters for the division of housework at a point in life when men are no longer out-earning women, nor working longer hours than women. Men’s advantage in the paid labor market makes gender specialization economically rational: Giving men a pass on some household responsibilities allows them to prioritize paid work, and the whole family benefits from the money they are enabled to bring in. This kind of argument, however, stops working when couples stop working.
When couples can’t rationalize the division of housework on the basis of paid work, women still do more. As time availability and relative resources become increasingly equal between partners in retirement, housework remains unequal. Geist and Tabler investigated what might alter that pattern, particularly how health could “be a currency” in the division of housework. They found this currency works for both men and women: both do less housework when they have poorer health, similar to the way both men and women do less housework when they have paid jobs. Paid work and poor health are both legitimate “outs” when it comes to vacuuming the stairs.
Health also seems to function as a currency similar to paid work in that women’s health issues do not impact their housework as much as men’s health issues do. She cuts back less on housework when she is employed than he does, and she also cuts back less on housework when her health is failing than he does.
Despite all these parallels between younger and retired adults, Geist and Tabler highlight that age really does make a difference. When they find that women’s physical limitations have to be quite pronounced before men do more of the housework, they consider what this means for older women. Women over 65 were born before 1953: they were generally socialized with the expectation that the home would be their domain, and in an era where the cleanliness of the home was a reflection of the woman’s value (and self-worth). That means it is a probably a bigger deal for them to let debris accumulate on the stairs than it is for me. I hate it because it is ugly, and I’m embarrassed when a nine-year-old aks if we have a vacuum. But it never occurred to me to feel less womanly because of that comment.
So maybe older women don’t let go of household chores until they simply can’t do them anymore. Or maybe that is the only time their husbands are sufficiently motivated to step in. Regardless, Geist and Tabler caution:
when practitioners want to understand older women’s life circumstances and their domestic workload, they need to understand that they may not be able and/or willing to cut back on housework as much as might be protective for their health. Practitioners cannot simply assume that just because an older (female) patient is managing an illness or physical limitation, she will alter her housework performance substantially.
In other words, she might not cut back until an impairment becomes a disability. Moreover, not cutting back when impaired might accelerate the transition to disability.
This makes the division of housework a different kind of issue for older women than for younger women. Even though there is evidence that both housework and guilt over not doing it affect the health of younger women too, working women have voices on their side. For example, an article in The Guardian last month about the gendered division of housework for British couples disagreed with the premise in the title of Geist and Tabler’s study. Recognizing the stresses associated with the division of housework, the author's conclusion was “Maybe something’s got to give—and since it shouldn’t be workplace equality or happy relationships, it’s going to have to be the dusting,” adding later, “If the patriarchy is so invested in the cleanliness of our carpets, let it come round at the weekend and vacuum them itself.”
Unfortunately for me and my husband and our stairs, we don’t know how to recruit “the patriarchy” to come around for that job. Fortunately for our relationship, we agree that our jobs and our children are more important than our house.
Nonetheless, the study compels me to think about the older woman for whom health problems plus age do not equal a dirty house until the health problems become severe enough that she can’t keep up. The author of The Guardian article wasn’t willing to allow workplace equality or happy relationships to give, but is health allowed to give? I don’t think so. Geist said in an interview, "You may want the male partner to step up maybe a little earlier and be part of encouraging his wife to cut back."
The currently-retired generations need to hear voices supporting the importance of health over carpets. Neither older men nor older women may realize that traditional gender roles might have physical health consequences in retirement, and both need to hear that moderate health problems are legal tender when negotiating the division of housework.
Laurie DeRose is a Research Assistant Professor at the Maryland Population Research Center at the University of Maryland at College Park, where she has served since its inception. She is also Director of Research for the World Family Map project.