The halls are quiet, and virtually empty as we enter the nursing home, but every once in awhile, a nurse slips in and out of room. She must be doing the rounds this afternoon, quickly checking in on all the patients to make sure they’re alright. Though we’ve never met, she greets us with a smile and a quick “hello” as we pass.
When we turn the corner and enter my mother’s room, we are not surprised to find her in her usual spot – sitting in her wheelchair by her desk, working on a craft of some sort. Though she looks pitiably uncomfortable, with a back now permanently bent from osteoporosis, and fingers stiffened and uncooperative with Parkinson’s Disease, she works happily, with a patient deliberation that never ceases to amaze me.
For the last 22 years, my mother has been battling Parkinson’s disease, a large enough expanse of time that she is now one of the longest survivors of the disease in Canada. She was only 60 when she was diagnosed, after falling off a ladder while washing windows. Since she was otherwise completely healthy, her diagnosis came as a bit of a shock to all of us, and plunged her into a bout of denial for a few years. As I’ve watched her gracefully navigate this challenging condition over the years, I’ve wondered if her longevity hinges on those two basic facts: her relative youth when diagnosed, and her lack of other health problems. Then again, a new study published last January suggests there may be something more to it than that.
After analyzing historical information from seven different populations over a period of 150 years, researchers In Denmark and Germany have found that women have a distinct survival advantage over men. At first glance, this information may not sound surprising at all ; we’ve long known that women tend to outlive men. But that’s during normal circumstances. In this study, they were looking at abnormal conditions of crisis, particularly during periods of starvation, disease, and slavery. Their study included data from the Irish potato famine (1845-1849), the measles epidemics in Iceland (1846 and 1882), and plantation slaves in Trinidad (at the beginning of the 19th century). Here, once again, it was found that women tend to outlive men.
The reason this is so noteworthy is because times of crisis also tend to be times when women are neglected. Historically, parents have been more willing to seek treatment for sick little boys when there is an epidemic, but not so much for sick little girls. When food is scarce, it’s the little boys who are fed first, and the girls get the leftovers, if there are any. So, why is it that a girl’s chance of survival is still higher despite these significant disadvantages?
Researchers point to biology, and to the hormone estrogen in particular. Estrogen is known to have protective effects on the immune system, while testosterone is more of an immunity suppressor. There are also the well-known protective effects on the heart that estrogen provides. Testosterone, on the other hand, tends to lead men into trouble, making them more reckless, with a greater chance of accidental or violent death. It also makes them more likely to smoke, drink, and take psychoactive drugs. Then, there is also the fact that girls have two X chromosomes, whereas boys have only one. In this case, if there is any damage to one of a girl’s X chromosomes, the other can fill in the gaps. But boys have just one X and one Y, and therefore no back-up in the case of bad genetic mutation.
There may be even more to it than that. In another study published earlier this year from researchers at Lehigh University and Queen’s University in Belfast, it was found that women also tend to make better leaders during times of crisis. Because when everything falls apart, people tend to get angry and point fingers of blame, which can disintegrate feelings of social cohesion and lead to failure. In addition to their biology, women also have relational strengths, which help them manage other’s emotions, defuse tensions, reappraise the situation more positively, and redirect negative attention elsewhere. This allows groups to establish or repair trust, which is crucial for maintaining group solidarity during a challenging event, and makes survival more likely. Women are also generally seen as more trustworthy, and so are better able to maintain feelings of goodwill between groups, and obtain necessary resources from others.
Damien Mander, a trainer for park rangers in the Phundundu Wildlife Area in Zimbabwe has taken note of these advantages and put them to good use. Because of rampant trophy hunting, rangers of African game parks must essentially act as combat soldiers, and Mander has spent the last ten years looking for good prospective hires. Over the years, he has learned that women can make better rangers than men. For one, they are less susceptible to bribery from poachers. They are also more adept at de-escalating violent situations, making attempts at conciliation before using their weapons. They are also more likely to bring their income back to their families instead of spending it on themselves, which is of greater economic benefit to the region.
And as it turns out, they’re also tougher. A former special forces soldier from Australia, Mander has trained countless recruits, both male and female, subjecting them to days of nonstop exercises to see how well they perform while wet, cold, hungry and tired. Of the 37 female potential recruits he recently trained for the park ranger program, only three quit, and 16 were eventually hired. Meanwhile, after a similar course for 189 men, almost all of them quit after the very first day. Only three remained to continue the program. It’s this particular brand of female resilience that I’m referring to, this incredible endurance that so many of the women I know possess which inspires me.
Women may not have the muscular strength and power of men, but we more than make up for it in other ways. We just don’t quit. Despite being discriminated against, harassed, and neglected, we just keep showing up and finishing whatever jobs we start. Men may rage, burn out, and walk away, but women trudge onward, building solidarity and support wherever we can, collecting other stragglers, and bringing them with us as we go.
And so, I often find myself moved when I visit my mother. For, despite the weakness of her fingers, and her growing lack of co-ordination, she soldiers on with a smile on her face. She glues lace around supportive cards for the nursing home staff, she cuts out colourful hearts and tapes them to her wall, and she greets all visitors with a big hug, despite whatever pain or discomfort she may be in. Like women everywhere, my mother is a survivor. In fact, she’s more than a survivor, she’s simply incredible.