Aging Spouses Thrust Women Back to the Victorian Age

King Charles is 75 years old. His cancer diagnosis has come as a shock to all those who wished him well in his long-delayed ascension to the throne. It is not known how long the king will be away from his duties, but his situation has put the spotlight on a widespread problem that is not often discussed. Namely the increased longevity of men and the burden it places on those who care for them, most often their wives or partners.

In the King’s case we can be sure that he has the resources for round the clock care, if necessary. What about the rest of us?

At a time when women are finally breaking through the glass ceiling in the business world, they face a new challenge. A challenge which is forcing them back into the Victorian age: their rapidly aging husbands or partners.

Imagine a woman with a successful career, somewhere in her 60’s. She comes home one day from work to find her husband has been let go and is now retired or “at leisure”.

To put it bluntly, he has no job, no income, no status and nothing to occupy him, except streaming sports, Netflix and Turner Classic Movies.

His hearing is deteriorating daily. She must shout to make herself understood. His mobility is compromised: he uses a walker and can’t drive anymore. She needs to drive him everywhere or provide transportation to all his medical appointments, not to mention his personal care, like the dentist or barber shop.

His personal habits are deteriorating. He can’t be bothered to make the bed, clear the breakfast dishes or pick up his dirty socks.

She needs more help and it’s expensive, very expensive. And now they are both relying on one income, hers, and their rapidly dwindling savings.

Some women I know have given up their careers, stopped working and become full time caretakers out of financial necessity. Others stay at work to pay for someone else to do the cooking, cleaning, laundry and take care of the physical needs of their elderly spouse.

Either way the aging male population is relying on female labor to keep them alive, fed, cleaned and cared for.

Is this fair? Here are some real-life examples:

My English friend S. lives in London. Her husband, now 85, sold the TV production company they jointly owned and retired to write a book. He’s on his fifth year writing it and it may never be finished. She retired to run the house and look after him. He’s deaf and can’t drive anymore, so they are selling their treasured country home in France as none of their three children and four grandchildren want to take it over. Their social life has dwindled to a few elderly friends.

My American friend J. lives in New York City and is married to a retired doctor, now 90, who gave up practicing medicine ten years ago. He has become a long-term patient himself. His ailments include a broken hip, melanoma and a series of mini strokes. He is still alive, still compos mentis, but physically a shadow of his former athletic self. She has given up work to become his nurse, secretary, bookkeeper, financial consultant, cook, laundress and keeper of the many medical appointments.

She has lost weight, lost hair, lost sleep and lost her social life. She has, unsurprisingly, become despondent.

One last example. My friend N. is married to a well-known physicist, now 87, who could retire, but insists on continuing to work on his “equations”. To do this he needs to be around his academic colleagues, who allow him access to his former office. His wife is his support system, shopping, cooking, cleaning, and acting as his travel assistant, secretary, computer expert, accountant and banker, to name a few roles. She also coordinated their downsizing move to a smaller apartment, despite having physical handicaps herself.

She would much prefer to live in a warmer climate, in a residential living facility, where he would get three meals a day and help with his medical conditions, of which there are many. He refuses. “I could not get this kind of service in a residential home” he says selfishly. He is right.

Is it any wonder that overworked, caring spouses tend to die first?

In Victorian days it was the unmarried sister or aunt who was called upon to be the caregiver for aging parents. In return they received a roof over their heads, board and lodging and, sometimes, a small allowance.

Today increased longevity and the high cost of elder care is forcing wives into that role. They are burdened by caretaking, whether they want it or not. As women get older, they are being returned, unwillingly, and inevitably, to the Victorian age.

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