Study shows middle-aged women are most empathetic people

| Monday, Feb. 18, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

When Shari Hodges looks at her life, she realizes she has much more than she needs — and others, not nearly enough.

Hodges, 55, began volunteering at Light of Life Rescue Mission on the North Side about a year ago, after she lost her job as a petroleum landman for Marcellus Shale. She'll do anything the shelter needs her to do — preparing and serving food in the kitchen, coordinating volunteers, and even scrubbing baseboards and walls. The most fulfilling part, she says, comes when she sits down with the homeless people the mission serves, and hears their stories and struggles.

Such volunteer work suits the Wexford resident well at this stage in her life: She might not have felt the same compassionate pull as a younger woman.

“The difference between being 20 and being older like me is you've had a couple of hard knocks along the way,” says Hodges, a single mom. “You become increasingly more appreciative of the basic things in life. I think at 25, you're more wrapped up in who you are.”

According to a recent study, people like Hodges come from the most empathetic category of people: middle-aged women. In the study of more than 75,000 adults, women who were born in the 1950s and 1960s scored higher than men of the same age range, and than people both younger and older than middle-aged. Researchers don't know for sure the reasons for this difference: Is it an innate female trait that peaks in middle age because of life stage and experience, or is it a generational thing with women who grew up during the historic social movements decades ago?

“We don't know what's going on in terms of what's causing it,” says Sara Konrath, assistant research professor at the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research. She worked on the research team for the study, “Empathic Concern and Perspective Taking: Linear and Quadratic Effects of Age Across the Adult Life Span.”

Konrath suspects that a woman's life stage — when she might be caring for her own children and for parents — can raise her empathy level, as can decades of experience with living and facing challenges and losses. People who do volunteer work also tend to score highly on empathy, says Konrath, whose husband, Paul Anderson, grew up in Mt. Lebanon.

“You get to a point in life when you're not so quick to judge, and a little more willing to step outside yourself and experience what other people are experiencing,” she says.

Darla Jannetty, 51, of Mt. Lebanon says the findings of the study make sense. In her middle age, she has thought about “things that really matter,” like relationships.

Jannetty — who has lost both of her parents — puts her compassion into action at St. Clair Hospital in Mt. Lebanon, where she has worked for almost two years as a volunteer, mostly in the surgical family-waiting area. She communicates with, assists and comforts family members anxiously awaiting news about their loved ones in surgery.

“It's our job to make them feel comfortable,” Jannetty says. “When I was 20, it's not that I didn't care about people, but ... as you get older and you go through things in your own life, you have a tendency to take note. You want to give back. You want to take care of people.”

Konrath and her colleagues from the Michigan's Ann Arbor university and North Carolina State University observed an inverted U-shaped pattern of empathy across the adulthood lifespan. Empathy rises as a person ages from young to middle-aged, but it doesn't keep rising: As someone matures into the elderly years, empathy levels dip again. Perhaps this is because people in their 70s and beyond may need to be cared for again, and they are focused on their own needs, like a younger person, Konrath says.

Irene Frieze, professor of psychology and women's studies at the University of Pittsburgh, says people often consider women at all ages to be more empathetic than men, because women seem to care more about relationships and social interaction. Frieze thinks that the age difference in empathy comes more from life experience than the baby-boomer generation experience, although members did witness societal changes that emphasized feelings and struggles of other groups.

“I think it's an age thing,” Frieze says. “I think it relates to what kind of roles and activities you're involved in at that age. For younger people, you're very involved in getting your career started, getting your family started ... and getting life under way.”

Jessie Ramey, a faculty fellow in the women's studies and history department at the University of Pittsburgh, says, even in a more egalitarian age when women work and men share parenting duties, women still are the primary caregivers of the family. When middle-aged women are focused on caring for their families — often their own children, their husbands and their parents — their empathy and compassion grow, Ramey says.

“We're assigned the nurturing role ... culturally,” she says. “It's reinforced in little girls growing up, still.”

Martha Banwell, 57, of Squirrel Hill, says age brings empathy and perspective, and a sense for what really matters.

“I think it's because we've been around the block a little bit,” says Banwell, as she pets Chester, a 9-year-old cream-colored cat at the Animal Rescue League of Western Pennsylvania. “You no longer feel ... like you have to be the best.”

Banwell, who has volunteered as a shelter-cat cuddler for three years, says she has gained more empathy for animals and potential adopters.

“I'm happy I can spend my days hanging out with animals,” Banwell says. “It's a great life.”

Kellie B. Gormly is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at or 412-320-7824.

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