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Study examines phenomenon of women caring
February 16, 2011 – The aging population, 65
years and older, includes nearly 3.8 million
divorced men and women, according to the
U.S. Census Bureau. Illnesses and
end-of-life issues can be particularly
difficult for singles without spouses or
A new study from the University of Missouri
provides insight into the experiences of
exes who care for their former spouses,
offering support, assistance with daily
tasks and management of health needs.
"The concept of women as caregivers for
their ex-husbands is largely unexplored,"
said Teresa Cooney, associate professor in
the College of Human Environmental Sciences.
"To date, our study is the first to examine
this form of caregiving. Initial findings
suggest that it is more common than expected
and that the experience is highly variable
Cooney and Christine Proulx, MU researchers
in the MU Department of Human Development
and Family Studies, are examining the
experiences of women who provide care for
In the study, the researchers conducted a
series of telephone interviews with
caregivers throughout the U.S. and
identified unique characteristics and
motivations of these women and how
caregiving affected their relationships.
"Compared to traditional caregiving, there
are unique issues involved with providing
care for former spouses," Proulx said. "A
surprising number of the women reported
continued involvement with their ex-husbands
post-divorce. A strong motivator for women
to become caregivers is related to their
desire to maintain relationships, not with
ex-husbands, but typically with their
children. It appears that having shared
children with an ex might facilitate
emotional attachment. Women also might try
to shield their children from the demands of
Emotional attachments among women and their
exes, including post-divorce relations or
positive feelings toward former spouses,
facilitated their caregiving relationships.
Additionally, the study revealed that some
women experience "uplifts" or emotional
rewards for caregiving.
"Some women reported caregiving as a turning
point in relationships with their
ex-husbands," Cooney said.
"These women experienced positive
interactions as they helped their former
husbands, which seemed to buffer the
challenges of caregiving.
pleasant interactions are common among more
traditional caregivers and their recipients,
we didn't expect to find this in a study of
ex-wife caregivers. Several women noted that
their ex-husbands had 'softened' during
illness and there was less conflict."
Continued exploration to determine why and
how former spouses become caregivers will
expand current ideas about families and
relationships, Cooney said. Cooney and
Proulx will further examine relational
changes, support for caregivers of former
spouses and males as caregivers.