A question from a research participant stayed with Toni Calasanti as she worked on a study involving how older heterosexual men and women approach caregiving when their spouses have Alzheimer’s disease. 

The respondent wanted to know how she could raise four children while earning a master’s degree and working full time, and yet, as an older adult, she could not deal with her husband, who had Alzheimer’s.

Calasanti, a sociology professor at Virginia Tech, found that men and women handled their spouses in comparable, and yet very different ways.

“Women tended to see themselves not just as nurturing,” Calasanti said, “but in a kind of holistic way, in an I-need-to-take-care-of-the-whole-person kind of way. The men were far more task oriented. Both genders had very different expectations of what their care work would look like.” 

In looking back at that 2003 study, Calasanti began to wonder how aging same-sex spouses or partners would deal in similar caregiving situations. Would they have the same frustrations, strategies, and coping mechanism as heterosexuals? These questions inspired her to start a new study, now being funded by the National Institute on Aging. 

“It’s not just about gender,” she said. “The sexual orientation piece is important too.”

Calasanti said older same-sex partner caregivers have received little research attention. Her qualitative study will examine how 60 same-sex and heterosexual spousal and partner caregivers draw upon life-learned skills and resources based on their gender. The grant will explore caregiving challenges, such as maintaining hygiene, managing medications, and navigating behavioral changes; caregiver responses to those challenges; and coping strategies that have proved helpful. 

“This study explores how sexual orientation shapes gender repertories, given that the division of labor among gay and lesbian couples must be negotiated, as well as caregiving approaches,” Calasanti said. “Such knowledge will help identify effective interventions that can help caregivers with their tasks and avoid negative physical and mental health outcomes.” 

The National Institute on Aging grant comes at a time when Calasanti is beginning her second three-year term on the United Nations International Board of the International Institute on Ageing. She is the board member representing North America for the organization, which promotes training and research, along with the exchange of information and knowledge, to provide an international foundation for social policies and action.

The grant will afford Calasanti and collaborator Brian de Vries, professor emeritus at San Francisco State University, two years to identify and interview participants and to analyze the qualitative study’s findings.

During the first spring of the study, Calasanti will work on the grant while serving as a Fulbright Canada Research Chair in Aging and Society at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. Through this Foundation for Educational Exchange between Canada and the United States of America program, she will work with the broad range of academics and community partners in the aging research network at McMaster’s Gilbrea Centre for Studies in Aging. 

A member of the Virginia Tech community since 1987, Calasanti is the recipient of many awards, including the Florence L. Denmark Award for Distinguished Contributions to Women and Aging (with Kate Slevin) from the American Psychological Association’s Society for the Psychology of Women; the Richard Kalish Innovative Publication Award from the Gerontological Society of America; the Virginia Tech Alumni Award for Research Excellence; and, in 2018, the Virginia Tech Alumni Award for Excellence in International Research.

In addition, Calasanti served as co-editor for Social Currents, the official journal of the Southern Sociological Society, and the international book series “Aging in a Global Context” by Policy Press. Calasanti is also the series editor of “Diversity and Aging” by Rowman & Littlefield.

As a published critical scholar of aging, she credits her academic foundations in sociology for helping to expand her interest in paid and unpaid labor in the aging population to other research opportunities.

“Much of it has been serendipitous,” Calasanti said. “I didn’t think I would end up researching care work, but with a theoretical grounding, you can do anything. I was able to translate my interest in paid and unpaid labor into spousal care work and fashion it into something meaningful.” 

Written by Leslie King