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Elder caregiving a growing burden to women in mid-career

Women’s long-term participation in the workforce faces a threat from the growing need for elder care.

That’s according to a new study by Sean Fahle, assistant professor in the Department of Economics, College of Arts and Sciences, and Kathleen McGarry, of the University of California, Los Angeles.

As longevity increases, the need for elder care is growing and the lion’s share of that burden falls to women. And to give such care, many are forced to cut back on working or leave the workforce entirely.

The study, “Women Working Longer: Labor Market Implications of Providing Family Care,” found women caregivers were 8 percent less likely to work and that after providing care, were 4 percent less likely to be working. The study was presented at the Women Working Longer Conference hosted by the National Bureau of Economic Research in the spring, and will be included in a book of papers presented at the event.

And, interestingly, the study found that caregiving is increasing, meaning more current generations of women are more likely to provide care than women before them.

“Millions of people are providing care for their parents or parents-in-law,” Fahle says.

Fahle and McGarry used data from the Health and Retirement Study from the University of Michigan, which has been tracking participants for more than 20 years. The data used in the study from 9,498 people showed that about one-third of the women had provided care for an elderly parent, parent-in-law or spouse.

Care involves helping someone with such activities as eating, bathing or dressing. Caregiving for parents peaks around age 56, while caregiving for a spouse does not become widespread until the late 60s.

With the aging of the population, demand for care is likely to increase, Fahle says. It’s estimated that 69 percent of elderly people will need help with daily activities, and 20 percent of these people will need help for five years or more. And most of this help will come from wives and daughters.

“People are living longer, Alzheimer’s is projected to increase and, meanwhile, family sizes are shrinking so the burden of caregiving is falling on fewer children,” Fahle notes. “Scenarios look somewhat gloomy in many ways going forward.”

With the retirement of the baby boom generation, these needs will collide with the need to retain a productive workforce. And the caregiving challenge is emerging at a time when more women are in the workforce and staying there longer.

“People have been working longer, but the demographic shifts on the horizon are troubling a lot of people,” Fahle says.

Other studies by insurance companies also show dramatic economic losses. The National Association of Insurance Commissioners reported this year that 10 percent of caregivers cut back on hours worked because of the demands of caregiving, while an estimated 6 percent leave paid work entirely. Seventeen percent of caregivers take a leave of absence and 4 percent reportedly turn down promotions.

Figures from a survey by Genworth Financial, which sells long-term care insurance, were even starker: 11 percent of caregivers lost their jobs due to caregiving and 52 percent had to reduce work hours by an average of 7 hours per week.

The economic value of the care given by family members is astounding. A 2011 study by Reinhard L. Feinberg, A. Houser and R. Choula for the AARP Public Policy Institute estimated the value of informal care in 2009 exceeded $450 billion, more than twice the estimated value of formal care.

And perhaps that cost lies at the heart of concerns over the rise in women taking on caregiving responsibilities.

The growing number of women giving care to their elders “suggests that the lack of affordable long-term care options can have a substantial impact on employment rates,” the study says.

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