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New research from the University of Utah finds when older couples retire, they divide household chores along traditional gender lines. And she has to become pretty severely physically impaired before he takes on housework.

SALT LAKE CITY — Health matters when it comes to how older couples divide up housework after they retire. For men especially, housework tends to follow gender lines and unless the woman faces fairly severe physical limitations, he's unlikely to pitch in much, according to new research from the University of Utah.

Older retired women do most of the housework and if a man becomes ill, he is likely to cut back even more on household tasks, compared to women, according to the study, published in the Journal of Women and Aging.

Lead author Claudia Geist, assistant professor of both sociology and gender studies at the U., told the Deseret News that most research on housework considers how employment and income impact who does what around the house.

"I have studied the division of labor for quite some time and often the main theme is the schedule: paid work v. housework. The idea is if you bring home more money, you get out of the more unpleasant tasks at home. If you spend more time at work, you use less time to do housework when you get home," Geist said.

This time researchers chose to study older retired couples because time spent working outside the home was no longer a relevant variable. Yet, the gendered assignment of tasks remained.

Looking at health helped researchers understand the division of labor, which for today's retired couples is largely generational, she noted. Older men may just be doing what they've always done. And women may feel more obligation to carry out those gendered tasks they've always tackled.

Because more couples have now worked outside the home their entire adult lives in younger generations, Geist said it will be interesting in another 20 year to see whether things have changed and if gender norms are different.

Established patterns

For now, household tasks are quite predictable, said her study co-author. "It's well-established that men and women perform different types of activities during employment years," said Jennifer Tabler, who earned her doctorate in sociology at the U. and is now an assistant professor at The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. "The domestic sphere is generally relegated to women. But when they retire, they should have an equal amount of time to dedicate to it."

The study shows women do more housework when neither one works, although health may provide some limitations. Health doesn't make a difference to how much men do — mostly because they weren't doing much housework anyway. Men were more likely to spend time on home repairs, Tabler said.

The question is whether women prefer to "guard their domain" or men simply don't step up until their wives are quite impaired, the researchers wrote. They suggest doctors may have to point out that a woman's ill-health may require some adjustments in the household arrangements.

Tabler said it's probably not a conscious decision on the part of either partner, but rather what they have be been used to doing. "It's called the second shift in literature examining that," she said, adding that "it's still the pervasive gender norm" that women who work outside the home do most of the housework within the home.

She also noted that doing housework is not necessarily odious and influences wellbeing. "There are benefits to remaining productive all your life and this might be one way to maintain that."

The researchers used data from a longitudinal study at the University of Michigan in which heterosexual married couples who were at least age 60 and retired accounted for how they used their time. The specific data was from the 2009 and 2013 waves of the Disability and Use of Time supplement — actually a time diary — that was part of the Panel Study of Income Dynamics.

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Household tasks in the study included laundry, cooking, cleaning, grocery shopping and running errands, handling finances and doing minor home repairs. They compared who did more of the tasks or whether they were shared, along with each partner's physical limitations, including energy level, difficulty functioning and how many days a person was affected by illness or disability.

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