Nearly one-third of American adults act as informal, unpaid caregivers in some capacity, according to a new study at the University of Washington (UW). The research is believed to be the first to break down unpaid caregiving in the U.S. by age and gender of caregivers and those they care for, in their own homes or elsewhere.
The researchers found that informal caregivers collectively provide about 1.2 billion hours of unpaid work weekly, the equivalent of about 30.5 million full-time care aides.
While other studies have looked at caregiving within the home or between specific groups, such as middle-aged parents and young children, most have not broken down caregiving into subgroups of people, or observed a range of caregiving scenarios both inside and outside the home; for example, babysitting a friend’s children.
The research revealed some notable patterns. Childcare occupies a large chunk of time for caregivers of various ages, but particularly women in their 30s, and to a lesser degree, in their late 50s and older, underscoring the importance of parenting and grandparenting. And while grandmothers spend quite a bit of time with grandchildren from birth to age four, grandfathers tend to spend more time with grandchildren aged five to 14.
Some of the other findings were quite surprising, say the researchers. For example, they had assumed that the sandwich generation — those who care for both children and aging parents — would make up a larger portion of caregiving Americans, but they found that this group only comprises three percent of the population.
The unexpectedly small number of sandwich generation caregivers could reflect the fact that while Americans are living longer, people are also having children later, so the two trends might counterbalance each other, said the researchers.
“That could be one reason,” said lead author Dr. Emilio Zagheni, a UW assistant professor of sociology. “Or it could be that health overall is improving, so people at older ages don’t need as much help.”
The researchers were also surprised to find that elderly people were frequently being cared for by spouses, and not their adult children. In fact, about 20 percent of caregiving time spent on people 80 years or older comes from people of the same age.
“The extent to which spousal care is prevalent at old ages, 70 and 80 years old, was surprising to us,” said Zagheni. “We expected to see more caregiving by adult children of their parents.”
Older men provided slightly more spousal care than women, Zagheni said, which might be because men are dying earlier, possibly before they need much care, and women are living longer but are in poor health at older ages.
Far less caregiving time was spent on elderly people than with young children. Across the various age groups, elderly people received caregiving typically no more than 1.5 hours daily, on average, compared with six hours for young children.
Overall, women continue to make up the largest caregiving group. They provide 137 minutes of unpaid caregiving a day on average, compared with men’s 110 minutes. Among the sandwich generation, the numbers increase to 181 and 157, respectively.
The U.S. is currently in a “golden age” of caregiving, Zagheni said. Gaps between those who need care and those who are available to provide it are smaller than in the 1950s and ’60s, when high birth rates put a squeeze on caregiver availability, and what we will see in coming years, when the numbers of elderly Americans are expected to increase significantly.
“At least from a demographic perspective, there are enough people in the productive age groups to distribute the work to take care of those who need it, either children or the elderly,” he said. “That’s not going to last.”
The findings are published in the journal Population and Development Review.
Source: University of Washington