Indiana University       Research & Creative Activity      September 2001 • Volume XXIV, Number 2

Good Work

Ponce de Leon might be surprised. The Spanish explorer’s search for age-fighting waters took him to the tropics, but it seems there’s a sprinkle of the fountain of youth in the daily nine-to-five. Work can actually help forestall some the declines and ailments of aging, especially for older women.

“Work is very, very important for the physical health of older women,” says Eliza Pavalko, associate professor of sociology at IU Bloomington. “For women in their 50s and 60s, employment has a very striking effect. It really slows the onset and increase of the kinds of things women start to experience at that age, such as difficulty walking up and down stairs easily or kneeling.”

Eliza Pavalko is associate professor of sociology at Indiana University in Bloomington. Photo Ric Cradick © 2001 IU Photographic Services

The work does not have to be paid to be healthy. Volunteer work in the community or through a church also helps provide women with important health-enhancing benefits: contacts, support, and a sense of identity. “When something goes wrong or you have stress elsewhere, work gives you another dimension,” Pavalko says. But there is one kind of work that is not beneficial. In fact, it can be downright harmful, but it’s a role that as many as 70 percent of American women will take on in their lives—family caregiving.

In a study published last year, Pavalko and then-IUB graduate student Shari Woodbury found that late middle-aged women caring for an ill or disabled family member risk high levels of physical and psychological distress. Long-term caregivers reported the highest levels of psychological distress (measured by feelings of sadness, sleeplessness, and crying spells), suggesting that emotional problems pile up as a woman continues caregiving. Caregivers had greater difficulty doing activities such as standing, stooping, reaching, and lifting objects of more than 10 pounds.

What makes caring for ailing family members at home unhealthy for older women? It’s demanding and intense: “Part of what this research says is that caregiving is work, hard physical and emotional work,“ Pavalko emphasizes. And it’s also very isolating. Paid or unpaid work elsewhere helps because it gets women caregivers out of the house and gives them a break.

Because work involvement is clearly beneficial to women, job flexibility tops the list of what women workers need most, whether it’s flexible hours, paid time off, or an extended leave of absence. “It’s all about mixing family and work,” Pavalko says, “but we set it up as either-or. Even from an employer’s standpoint, this doesn’t make sense. Caregiving tends to be short-term. If you have a worker who’s trained, you don’t want her to have to leave work.”

Pavalko wants to convince employers, policymakers, governmental agencies, and caregivers themselves that providing, and seeking, support means a better quality of life for all concerned: the older caregiver and the ailing recipient. She acknowledges the longstanding debate over the appropriateness of federal or state support for private family caregiving, but points out, “It’s not about asking the government to replace what families ‘should’ be doing. In fact, governmental support and other supports in the community can allow people to continue giving care at home. The more support there is, the more easily families will be able to provide more care.”

The other message Pavalko wants to get across is more personal: If, or when, you’re a woman faced with providing care to a sick or disabled family member, ask for help.

“Somehow, we see it as a failing to say, for instance, ‘I need adult day care for my parent.’ We don’t ask for support; we just push on, persevere, and figure out a way to do it,” she says. “But the implication of this research is, don’t do that. Ask for help, whether it’s lobbying at the local level for more support, going to your employer and working something out, or calling on your siblings.”

Pavalko is continuing to look at the effects of work for women in her current research project, funded by the National Institutes of Health. She and her colleague Scott Long, also in the IUB sociology department, are turning their attention to younger women, studying patterns of employment and effects of work on the health of women in their 30s and up. “I’m particularly interested in whether we will see the same patterns for these women as we did for the older women,” Pavalko says. “Does employment become more beneficial as we get older?”

As for the work of caregiving, Pavalko hopes to investigate whether caregiving has different effects at different points in the life course, too. “There is a lot we don’t know about caregiving,” she says. “We need to do this work, so the question is, what makes it possible?” —L. B.

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