This article appears in Summer Boomers magazine.

When it comes to housework, there’s an uneven distribution of labor for household chores, even among couples where both partners are retired, according to a University of Utah study.

For dusting, vacuuming and cleaning the bathroom, men tend to not pick up the slack, even if their partners are in poor health. A woman’s health has to be considerably impaired before she stops doing chores and her husband takes on more of those duties, the study found.

Women everywhere may be saying, “Well, duh!” and it wasn’t a surprise to researchers, either.

“I wish the findings surprised us more,” said lead author Claudia Geist, an assistant professor at the University of Utah with joint appointments in sociology and gender studies. “Little research had been done among older couples where neither partner worked for pay — so we were curious to see whether housework would perhaps be a bit more egalitarian when the big constraint of paid work was out of the equation. But our findings suggest that housework remains gendered even when the demands of paid work go away.”

About the study

The researchers used data from a University of Michigan study in which heterosexual married couples who were at least age 60 and retired accounted for how they used their time. The Utah study defined housework as laundry, making dinner, grocery shopping and running errands, paying bills and banking, and minor home repairs and improvements. It looked at if each chore was shared equally or if a male or female in the house did a certain task more often.

Most previous research examined the way employment and income affect how couples negotiate the domestic division of labor, Geist said. But there is a gap in understanding what happens to people who are not in the labor force and who may also have health problems.

“We wanted to understand how health could be a currency that could help decide who does what,” Geist said. “One thing we found is that even when people don’t have these external demands on time, such as a job, they still have a very gendered way of doing things. Women still do more and their health is not as closely linked to them cutting back compared to men.”

Take as an example this scenario: A woman in her 60s or 70s who recently underwent knee surgery is married to a husband of similar age who also has health issues. She returns home and shoulders more housework than her husband even though it’s difficult and at times painful. Why?

“The reasons for why things like this happen are manifold,” Geist said. “It could be that the wife really wants to prove to everyone that she really can meet all her ‘duties’ or that the husband is just assuming that because the wife is back home everybody just goes back to their division of labor.”

Recommendations

In addition to pitching in with help, male partners should also be included in discussions with a woman’s health provider if poor health becomes an issue that requires adjustments in the division of housework, Geist said.

“Just telling the female patient to cut back may not be enough,” Geist said. “You may want the male partner to step up maybe a little earlier and be part of encouraging his wife to cut back.”

Friends and family can also weigh in and press for at least a short-term shift in responsibilities.

“If we change our ideas of what a ‘good husband’ does, to also include caregiving activities, that would go a long way,” Geist said.