Women empowerment, emancipation and feminism are some of the concepts that have been pushed to the forefront of the 21st century. Unfortunately, a crucial collateral that continues to linger in the shadow of these progressive ideas is the ongoing but neglected role of women as caregivers, nurturers and the anchors of strong, balanced families.
Caregiving is a major part of life for millions of women, regardless of colour, stature, culture, education background or socioeconomic grouping. More than 25 million women—almost one in seven—provide care to family members or friends. Research has shown that approximately 37 per cent of women globally, are part of the sandwich generation, providing care to both ageing parents and young children at home. While research has shown that family caregivers help their loved ones recover more quickly, avoiding or delaying institutional care, the daily pressures associated with caregiving have tremendous implications on women. In most societies three quarters, if not all, caregiving needs are provided by women. As workforce participation increases, caregiving is posing even greater financial challenges for many female workers, due mostly to lost wages from reduced work hours, time out of the workforce, family leave or early retirement. Women find themselves caught in a vicious cycle, the same characteristics that make women the leader of choice today—empathy, understanding and ethical leadership—make them the natural caregivers of this society, which is doing little to nothing to aid the increasing workload of this extremely crucial but exhausted section of the population.
The burden associated with caregiving has become a scary reality today, alongside the costs associated with providing quality caregiving to our expanding senior population. Research continues to show that caregiving for a family member is an unpaid role, which women are expected to fulfil. Women provide the majority of informal care to spouses, parents, in-laws, friends and the society in general.
Understandably, the stress of caregiving exacerbates existing health conditions or cause new ones. Research shows that women caregivers are twice as likely to forgo needed care as non-caregiving women. Although there are positive outcomes in providing care for loved ones, it can also impact mental health. Caregiving responsibilities take time away from social relationships, which are linked to social isolation and lower psychological well-being. Women caregivers have higher rates of depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions compared to their non-caregiving counterparts. This lead to high degrees of burnout and increases in compassion fatigue and poor health outcomes among women associated with caregiving.
Women continue to hold many roles and are expected to be: caregivers, wives, daughters, mothers, employees, decision-makers, and most of all homemakers. With the growing demands of caregiving, many women struggle with deciding on institutional care or home care nursing. Each area holds a cost burden, whether direct or indirect, to our seniors and their families. Women are the major providers of long-term care, but they also have long-term care needs of their own. With the change in population structure, women are seen to be living longer than men and, in some instances, tend to outlive their spouses, and have less access to retirement savings such as pensions given their socioeconomic status. A common scenario is an older woman who cares for her husband and who discovers that there are few resources, financial or otherwise, to meet her own needs for assistance.
Family caregiving can cause significant financial pressure as women struggle to balance competing work and caregiving priorities. One would expect as society makes adjustments to cater for the needs of the baby boomer generation, adjustments would be made to meet the growing demands of an ageing population. Caregivers may be pushed out of the labour force, forced to reduce their hours or denied professional advancements due to poor organisation behaviour planning. The ability to take time off to care for a family member or close friend without losing income or, worse, a job is a growing economic issue facing women who are the primary family caregivers.
A third of family caregivers have recorded their health to be fair to poor and described themselves as being overwhelmed and exhausted. A burning concern that remains unanswered is in the event of the primary caregiver getting ill who will take care of them? Many times, women don’t have an answer to that question and the stark truth is that many become homebound, living alone and isolated from society. In other cases they find themselves in an institutional care home which, for many, takes away their independence, power and control. These issues are real and if unaddressed they are bound to impact the labour market and by extension the social safety net programmes, sooner than we expect.