Call to better support unpaid carers this International Day of Older Persons

Key points

  • International Day of Older Persons 2022 focuses on the resilience and contributions of older women.

  • Research shows women shoulder the responsibility of care and lose income and superannuation potential.

  • National Seniors has proposed instituting paid carer leave separate from personal leave.

With workforce shortages causing chaos nationally, ageism continues to exclude older workers from employment with older women more exposed to ageist discrimination than men.

While most people are working to save superannuation to fund their retirement, many older women shoulder the responsibility of care. Consequently, losing income and superannuation while facing a higher risk of poverty, welfare dependency and homelessness in older age.

The unrecognised role of unpaid care

The situation is compounded by the demanding role of providing unpaid, informal care to family members, which results in reduced hours of paid work or quitting altogether.

National Seniors research suggests there is a strong gender disparity among those providing care to an ageing parent.

National Seniors recently surveyed more than 4000 Australians aged 50 plus. The survey found that 69 per cent of women provided care for ageing parents.

This work can be debilitating in terms of time, health, and financial costs. One participant shared, “It is emotionally and physically draining caring for an elderly parent. I cannot go on holiday for more than a night or two. I have health problems and live alone, so I really need to look after myself as well. It is a bit of an exhausting cycle.”

Another said, “That is 20 years of my life, earning power and superannuation that I have sacrificed for a worthwhile (yet distressing and exhausting) cause. At significant health and wealth cost to myself.”

Given the projected shift in Australia from caring for older people in residential facilities to caring for them in their own homes, we know this situation will get worse.

Home care packages can lighten some of the load, but it is not 24/7 care. At National Seniors, older Australians tell us family members still must fill the gaps in home-based care. Those gaps can be very wide.

Older people do not care only for parents. They care for children too, which goes largely unrecognised by the government and is often taken for granted in families.

National Seniors’ research also identified gender differences in grandparenting care.

Among our sample, women and men provided grandparent care equally, with 27 per cent of women and 26 per cent of men actively grandparenting.

Almost all the men who were a grandparent, a whopping 93 per cent of our sample, had a partner. This suggests they share the burden of the labour as a couple.

However, the same is not true of the women, among whom only 57 per cent had partners, while 43 per cent were single, providing grandparenting care on their own.

This suggests that the financial, time and health costs of grandparenting are higher for women than men on average since many more women are doing it alone. At the very least, there should be public recognition and support for those doing it tough.

As one of our survey participants said, unpaid care activities often come at a direct cost to the carer. “Two days per week unpaid care of two grandchildren. Gave up work as a teacher.”

The need for financial support

Older people who provide unpaid care for others contribute labour to the Australian economy without recompense and often at great personal and professional costs.

Many are not eligible for the Carer Payment because of its strict criteria. Others are eligible, but lose it if they continue in some paid work and earn over the allowable threshold.

The government’s proposal to allow workers to take extended unpaid carer leave will not solve the problem of lost earning potential either.

While workers can sometimes use personal leave to care for others, this disadvantages carers because they have less paid leave available when they fall sick.

Our research and that of others demonstrate that caring is associated with poorer mental and physical health. Therefore, carers need all the sick leave they can get, or they magnify their risks.

National Seniors recently proposed to the Senate Select Committee on Work and Care that paid leave entitlements for carers are increased by instituting paid carer leave. This is separate from personal leave to redress the inequity.

Like parental leave, this would be a type of leave that some people will never need, and others will, depending on life circumstances.

By expecting our carers to keep giving, despite poverty and ill-health, we are doing a disservice to older Australians who work, care, and the older Australians they care for.

The resilience and contributions of older women and other older people deserve recognition and in a form that pays the bills. The 2022 International Day of Older Persons is the time to act.

This article was written by Professor John McCallum, CEO and Director of Research, National Seniors Australia.

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