Lucille, a retired woman in her 70s shared with a friend the other day that she was going to water the yard but was stymied with the sprinkler system, something her husband usually took care of. When he came home, she asked him to show her the process for turning the system on and off. He refused, telling her it was his job and he’d take care of it. She laughingly told her friend she sure hoped he outlived her. Otherwise she’d have total responsibility for not only watering the yard but a variety of other duties that she didn’t have a clue how to do.
It’s difficult to describe to individuals today contemplating a relationship and/or marriage together how the traditions and expectations have changed in the last 30 to 50 years. Those of us who are old enough may remember the specific roles our parents and grandparents played in their own lives and relationships or at least as much as we paid attention to those relationships while growing up. But if you are older than 50, remember how husbands and wives assumed certain tasks. The men mowed the lawn. The women did the laundry. The men fixed the family car (only one usually). The women did the cooking, sewing and assumed primary responsibility for the children. The men went off to fight wars, were policemen, firemen and doctors.
There were certain roles that seemed up for grabs. Paying bills sometimes was assumed by the husband or the wife took on this responsibility. Fixing meals was usually the woman’s chore but cooking outside during a barbecue or on a camping trip would often be assumed by the man.
I remember going to play at a friend’s house in the mid 1950s and saw her father baking doughnuts. To me, coming from a family where my father never walked in the kitchen except to make popcorn, it was astounding. I went home in awe of a man who not only made delicious doughnuts but also in another revelation learned that this same father, a factory worker and counterpart of my father’s, did all the baking for his family. It was his hobby and my friend’s mother didn’t like to bake. Pretty astounding in 1957 … at least from my limited perspective.
The roles began shifting even back then and for those of us growing up in those times, it was a time in transition for us too. It began to be more common and acceptable for women to marry, have children and work outside the home. There was an ongoing debate that continues even today about what is right and what is best for the children, the couple and the relationship. Today, as in those early days for many families, the choice is eliminated when it absolutely takes both incomes to provide for the family.
How does this effect older people in our lives, our family members and our older neighbors in the community? There may be a gap in understanding because of the lack of experience for both sides. It may be hard for a woman who grew up in a household of working women and has always worked herself to understand the feelings of a woman who has never worked outside the home. There may be a seeming lack of motivation for a woman whose whole life was invested in her husband and family. When the children grew up and moved away, the husband became the center of her existence. If he dies before her, which is likely since women outlive men seven to 10 years, she must not only assume all the responsibilities but must become self-sufficient and capable of independent living.
The roles reverse when the survivor is the husband. Since many men never learned much about cooking, they realize quickly the loss of their cook along with their partner. I’ve had older clients in their 80s say, “I open cans real well.” Doing laundry, making appointments and maintaining relationships with close friends and family may be an all new experience for a man whose duties were all “outside” prior to his wife’s death. An adult son may be a great cook, live alone and thrive on this lifestyle while not understanding at all why Dad is depressed and rapidly losing weight. The adult daughter however, may unknowingly try to step into Mom’s shoes by coming over and cooking meals, doing laundry and assuming the “woman’s role” in the family. This only makes Dad more dependent hooks the daughter into a long-lasting position.
Fortunately these seemingly stilted, conservative, traditional roles are encountered less often as family mobility, access to television, the Internet and new technologies have come into older people’s lives. Older people can embrace learning about new things, new ways of living and acceptable ways of learning. These older adults are living longer and they know it. Statistics show that the 80-plus age group is the fastest growing segment in the aging population. Someone widowed at 75 can well expect to live another 12 or more years — plenty of time to explore and learn new ways providing their individual health allows it.
Some people, however, are slow learners while others never seem to get the picture. Recently, a 60-plus married woman was applying for health insurance coverage through her employment. She had difficulty understanding the open enrollment period, the choices of plans and the application itself. Her husband took over, called the agent, filled out the application and told his spouse which plan to choose. She did as he said but admittedly didn’t understand any of the process. I wonder if she asked for an explanation, if he was willing to explain, and if both of them realized what a disservice they did to each other.
I don’t think in the unwritten “grand job description” for partners it states unequivocally who does what. The tasks we assume, enjoy or just plain do are those that are necessary or fun. Withholding the knowledge of the task or depriving someone of the enjoyment of gardening, fishing, making doughnuts or purchasing long-term care insurance is unfair to the other person.
We need to remember life was different for adults in the 1950s and 1960s. That’s why it was such a revolution in the 1940s during World War II when women took men’s places in the factories, fields and shipyards. It was the beginning of the revolution that slowly began to change the lives of women and roles of men and women forever. As hard as it may be to understand those roles, jobs and expectations of that era, remember we are all aging. The cycle of life continues and 50 years from now people will look at the beginning of this new century and marvel at the antiquated lifestyles we accept and find so common today. Learn from the elders in your life, who at 75, 80, 90 and beyond can give us experiences and stories of life as we never knew it. In return, we can respect them, show them how to enjoy life and encourage them to learn how to turn on the sprinklers.
Carol S. Heape, MSW, CMC is CEO, Executive Director of Elder Options, Inc. serving the Sacramento region since 1988; elderoptionsca.com.