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Passing on Caregiving Responsibilities to their Sisters

Speakers shared stories from their own lives or professional experiences, highlighting the prevalent trend of daughters taking on primary caregiving responsibilities
12:01 AM May 05, 2024 IST | DR. ZUBAIR SALEEM
passing on caregiving responsibilities to their sisters

I was recently invited to join a panel at a conference on ageing, where experts from various backgrounds and regions came together to discuss caregiving. The unanimous agreement among speakers was notable: daughters tend to play a more active role in caring for their ageing parents compared to sons. This observation was supported by a combination of personal stories and research data shared during the discussions.


Speakers shared stories from their own lives or professional experiences, highlighting the prevalent trend of daughters taking on primary caregiving responsibilities. They recounted instances where daughters willingly stepped up to provide physical, emotional, and practical support to their elderly parents, often sacrificing their own time and resources.


In addition to these narratives, some speakers presented data and statistics to reinforce the notion of gender disparities in caregiving. Studies have consistently shown that daughters are more likely to engage in hands-on caregiving tasks, such as assisting with daily activities, managing medications, and arranging medical appointments. This pattern persists across different cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds, reflecting broader societal norms and expectations regarding gender roles within families.


This discussion falls under the subject of Gender and Caregiving. Therefore, it’s important for us to grasp this concept thoroughly.


Daughters as Primary Caregivers:


Primary caregivers are those who are either the sole caregiver or provide the majority of care along with other unpaid caregivers.


According to a study presented at a meeting of the American Sociological Association in 2014 by Angelina Grigoryeva, it was found that “Sons tend to do less caregiving when they have a sister, while daughters tend to do more caregiving when they have a brother.” This implies that sons often rely on their sisters to take on caregiving tasks of their parents. She concludes that daughters provide an average of 12.3 hours of elderly parent care per month as compared to sons’ 5.6 hours.


The book Who Should Care for the Elderly by William T Liu & Hal Kendig details that daughters are more likely than sons to take on the role of primary caregiver for ageing parents. This phenomenon is often attributed to societal expectations and gender norms that place a greater emphasis on women’s caregiving responsibilities within the family.

Research by Harris and Cook suggests that daughters tend to provide more emotional support and nurturance to their ageing parents compared to sons. Daughters are often perceived as being more empathetic and better able to meet the emotional needs of elderly parents, which can influence caregiving decisions.

Cultural factors and familial expectations also play a significant role in shaping gender caregiving dynamics. In many cultures, daughters are socialised from a young age to prioritise family caregiving duties, while sons may be encouraged to focus on their careers or other responsibilities outside the home.

While daughters may take on caregiving roles out of a sense of duty or obligation, research suggests that caregiving responsibilities can have significant effects on their own well-being. Daughters who provide care for ageing parents may experience higher levels of stress, anxiety, and burnout compared to sons or non-caregiving siblings.

Coming to India, Rajib Lochan Dhar in his study, Caregiving for Elderly Parents: A Study From the Indian Perspective, highlighted the role of adult daughters in care about their ageing parents. Based on my personal observations in Kashmir, daughters often serve as the primary caregivers for my patients. While there are many dedicated sons who provide care, it’s less common to see married sons in this role. During my duty at JLNM Hospital in the COVID era, I collected data on the caregivers of 98 elderly patients. The breakdown of caregivers was as follows: 47 married daughters, 13 married sons, 6 unmarried daughters, 27 unmarried sons, and 5 others. These figures clearly show that daughters, more than sons, tend to take on the responsibility of caring for their ageing and ailing parents.

This discussion brings to light the critical and often underappreciated role that daughters play in caregiving within families across various cultures and regions. It highlights a consistent theme, regardless of personal sacrifices, daughters frequently emerge as the primary caregivers for their ageing parents.

The experiences shared at the conference, coupled with statistical evidence, urge a broader societal acknowledgment and support for these caregivers, recognizing their invaluable contribution to family and society. As we move forward, it is crucial for policy makers, community leaders and families to consider more supportive structures and resources that can alleviate the burden on daughters, ensuring they have the support they need to care for their elders without compromising their own health and well-being. 

Dr Zubair Saleem is a Senior Citizens’ Specialist and Ageing Expert