Caring for the Caregivers

By Lee Anna Sherman

The typical middle-aged woman takes care of everybody in her household except one — herself. The consequences of this benevolent self-neglect can be dire: chronic disease, even death.

Even the healthiest lifestyle can’t always prevent disease. Still, millions of wives, mothers and grandmothers could better fend off, or at least slow down, the ravages of diabetes, heart disease and stroke if only they could find the time (or make the time) to exercise and eat right. Professor Alexis Walker in OSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences is digging into the social and psychological reasons they can’t (or don’t). If she can identify barriers, she can help craft interventions that break them down.

Walker’s area of expertise, family dynamics, is the third prong of a cross-disciplinary OSU investigation into lifestyle choices among women who have been diagnosed with “metabolic syndrome” — a dangerous complex of risk factors that has reached epidemic levels in the United States. Tackling the first prong of the study, motivational interviewing, is Rebecca Donatelle in Public Health. The second prong, diet and nutrition, is being handled by Melinda Manore in Nutrition and Exercise Sciences (see “Energy Source,” for more on Manore).

“My role in the study,” says Walker, “is to pay attention to how women’s family lives and responsibilities limit their ability to make changes that would benefit their health.”

Afflicting fully one-quarter of middle-aged Americans, metabolic syndrome is the coexistence of high blood sugar, low HDL (“good”) cholesterol, elevated blood pressure and extra fat at the waistline. After menopause, women’s risks go up. So middle age is the “last window of opportunity” to head off illness, Walker stresses.

For women juggling jobs, kids, husbands and homes, going to the gym usually means dropping something else. And then there’s the eternal question, “What’s for dinner?” When the answer is, “spinach salad,” the groans can be heard in Missoula. In short, alterations in daily routines can gum up the works of domestic routines and expectations.

“Women feel they have to keep the machinery of their families running — the psychological machinery, the emotional machinery and the practical machinery,” Walker says. “So it’s very difficult to work out these kinds of changes.”

Walker’s research on the ways family members support, or fail to support, one another in everyday tasks and care-giving is the key reason she holds the Petersen Chair in Gerontology and Family Studies, endowed with a gift from JoAnne (“Jody”) Petersen, who grew up in Silverton, Oregon. The 1947 OSU graduate was inspired to endow the chair after sharing the in-home care of her elder parents with several siblings, Walker explains.

“This research is really about helping women to be self-caregivers,” she says. “I think this is just the sort of social science that Jody would absolutely applaud.”