Being a female caregiver, between caring for others and caring for oneself

04 March 2024

Being a female caregiver, between caring for others and caring for oneself

Francine Ducharme, professor emeritus in the Faculty of Nursing at the Université de Montréal, is the first person to be awarded a doctorate in nursing by a Canadian university. She has been a researcher in the field of caregivers for over 30 years. International Women’s Rights Day is an opportunity to talk with her about female caregivers, and to understand the evolution of informal caregiving in Quebec’s recent history.


What drew you to caregiving and the women who help?

I didn’t come across this subject by chance. I was a nurse in the field before becoming a professor and researcher. Then, for my doctorate, I worked with elderly couples; I realized that these elderly women often cared for their spouses. I became interested in the physical and psychological health of these women, who told me how tired they were, but also said that helping them was “their duty.” They didn’t see themselves as caregivers, and made very little use of services, believing themselves to be “capable.” I was touched by their precarious health and vulnerability. At the end of the 1980s, we weren’t talking about caregivers and caregiving. Eventually, these women were going to fall ill. They had to be looked after.

I happened to do research on male caregivers. I observed a big difference compared to women. The men made extensive use of services, and many weren’t shy about asking for all kinds of help. Women, on the other hand, tended to ask for help only at the very end of their caregiving services.

I thought women made more use of resources…

Recent statistics reported by the Observatoire québécois de la proche aidance show that the tasks performed by men and women today remain fairly stereotyped and gender specific. While men take care of logistical support (shovelling snow, going to the bank, housekeeping), women mainly provide emotional support, care and domestic support for those they are caring for. This is what we call feminine care.

Society is evolving, but we’re still dealing with historically inherited male/female roles. Today, more and more people recognize themselves as caregivers because they hear about resources that could help them avoid exhaustion. I would add that, if in the ’80s or ’90s, men were asking for services without too much scruple, it was perhaps because they were being offered them… This “poor man” who has to look after his wife suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, how is he going to cope? So we offered him help. Obviously, we shouldn’t generalize, but that was one of the conclusions of the study.

Are these women concerned about others because they are women, or because they are in social conditions that require them to be caregivers?

There’s a big debate about this question, and I’m not going to settle it today! I think that the reasons for female caregivers are multidimensional and multifactorial, including historical, sociological and cultural factors.

What advice do you have for female caregivers?

The majority of female caregivers are in the “sandwich generation.” The 45–64 age bracket is a high point in a woman’s life. Her career is at its peak, she has experience, skills; she’s at the top. She has to live her own life and career, if need be, at the very moment when she has teenagers and elderly parents.

But when what I call the “caregiver career” begins, it’s often a long trajectory. One piece of advice would be to call on resources early on, with a view to taking care of yourself and being able to continue working. Some people give up their jobs for their caregiving role, but unless it’s a choice, I think women can try to find alternatives to lead their own lives, while staying healthy.

As a woman, how much distance should I keep from my concern for others?

That’s something you have to learn! With my research team, we have developed educational and support programs for caregivers: how to manage stress, take care of yourself, or even become a caregiver. Exercises and discussions help women realize that they no longer have time for themselves, their children or their relationship.

Caregiving doesn’t have to take over everything. We have to make time for ourselves, maintain our balance and avoid neglecting the rest of our lives, while exercising our role as caregiver, if we so choose.

When I was asked to do an interview with you, I was told: Francine Ducharme is the fairy godmother of l’Appui pour les proches aidants. Tell me all about it!

I’ve spent my life doing research on caregivers, and that led me to go before a parliamentary commission in 2009 to talk about the importance of a network of resources for caregivers of seniors in Quebec. This commission led to the creation of l’Appui pour les proches aidants. I wouldn’t call myself a “fairy godmother”; I had a great team around me! Many have fought for recognition of the role of caregivers, especially women.

Your name is also on the list of contributors to the National Policy for Caregivers. What did you contribute in that area?

There were several of us! I was asked to act as a consultant, was shown the progress of the work and reacted to certain points. I was particularly involved in identifying evaluation approaches and indicators for achieving the objectives of the National Policy.

I was very pleased to see that a National Policy and a Government Action Plan for caregivers set in motion in 2021 will see the light of day in Quebec.

For me, the National Policy is a godsend. It’s not going to change everything, but at least now there is official recognition of caregivers. I see the progress that has been made since the 1980s. There’s still a long way to go, but I prefer to look on the bright side: people recognize themselves more as caregivers, and they know that more and more services are being developed to support them.

What role does caring play in Quebec society?

Today, we speak of the “ethic of care.” This refers to the importance, in a society, of experiencing concern for others. The pandemic has shown the importance of women caring for other women and their role in the healthcare system. Caring and solicitude were crucial during the pandemic.

Taking care of others is essential in a society, yet this role has always been downplayed. Quebec has made progress: having a national policy for caregivers is quite something—it’s not the case everywhere! I’m pleased with this progress, even if change takes time—too much time, in my opinion!

A big thanks to Francine Ducharme for this fascinating conversation. Francine Ducharme’s long and hard work is now reflected in four free online training courses developed by her and her team and offered to caregivers: Avec toi sous un autre toit, MeSSAGES and Pas à pas vers la gestion du stress, as well as Devenir aidant, ça s’apprend! Thank you so much, Francine!

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