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The Caregiving Crunch  by Lillian Zimmerman
The Caregiving Crunch

In Canada, more than two million informal caregivers, the majority of whom are women, provide care to elders.

Most of these caregivers are mid-life baby boomers who are still in the paid workforce and inching toward their pre-retirement years. Many of them find themselves curtailing their paid work in various ways, such as working fewer hours or leaving paid work earlier than planned in order to attend to unpaid caregiving responsibilities. As a result, however, such caregivers will have less financial security in their retirement than they may have expected.

The financial vulnerability of these caregivers will be exacerbated by the recent increase in the age of the Old Age Security (OAS) and the Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS) benefits from age 65 to 67. Women’s pensionable earnings are already stretched due to their caregiving roles in their younger years, and now they will have to work two years longer before qualifying for OAS and GIS. The trends do not look good for women, according to Dr. Janet Fast, a professor in the department of human ecology at the University of Alberta.

“The demand for care is likely going to rise,” she says. “It’s the oldest-old segment that’s growing fastest … and they are people who are likely to require care.”

She further predicts that “since families are smaller, they face more multiple demands and may be geographically distant, [which] means the probability of any one family member or close friend becoming a caregiver is going to be higher.”

Canadian women live to 83 years on average, while men live to 78 years. Women in Japan already reach 86 years on average, and Canadian women are expected to do so by 2031. Longevity can cut both ways, allowing women to live longer while raising the necessity of caring for aging parents who are also living longer. These factors increase the threat to women’s late-life financial security.

Retirement and other feminist issues tend to coincide with life stages. Younger women tend to be concerned with wage equity, affordable daycare and reproductive rights. Mid-life women face ageism, getting suitable jobs and breaking glass ceilings. With boomers reaching retirement, it is now time for the issues facing older women to get greater attention from feminists. The first boomers reached 65 in 2011, and, since women live longer and provide most unpaid care, unpaid caregiving is certainly a women’s issue.

Canada has one of the highest numbers of baby boomers in the world, after the U.S.—some nine million people born between 1946 and 1964, who are almost equally divided by gender.

The four million female baby boomers represent a generation that faces a growing need for caregiving. Dr. Janice

Keefe of Mount St. Vincent University reported in a 2011 study, “Supporting Caregivers and Caregiving in an Aging Canada,” that the number of elderly Canadians needing assistance will double in the next 30 years. Informal caregivers, Keefe explains, “are family members, friends or neighbours, most frequently women, who provide unpaid care to a person who needs support … sometimes for an extended period.” Of the more than 2.3 million employed family or friend caregivers in Canada, three quarters undertake caregiving simultaneously with being in the paid workforce. Over one third of employed women and one quarter of employed men aged 45 and older provide care to a family member or friend.

Gerontologist Dr. Neena Chappell, of the University of Victoria, observed in a 2011 article, “Population Aging and the Evolving Care Needs of Older Canadians, “the baby boomer generation is at present providing most of the necessary care.” What is insufficiently emphasized in caregiving studies is the socio-economic connection between their caring and late-life poverty. Employed women caregivers were much more likely to incur employment penalties because of their responsibilities than their male counterparts. Thirty percent missed full days of work, 6.4 percent retired early, quit or lost their paid job, and 4.7 percent say they turned down a job offer or promotion as a result of their caregiving responsibilities. In the same article, Chappell notes that the value to the Canadian economy of this unpaid work is estimated to be in the range of $25 billion to $31 billion annually. In the U.S., a MetLife study in 2011, “Caregiving Costs to Working Caregivers,” found that women caregivers over 50 who were also in the workforce had forgone an average of $324,044 in lost salary and social security income over their lifetimes (which included previous child-rearing caregiving duties). Male caregivers over 50 and still in the workforce were calculated to have lost $238,716 in salary and social security income over their lifetimes.

Myrna is typical. At 62, she has looked after both parents. When her mother was widowed, Myrna, who had a nursing degree, continued caregiving. She describes herself as a “serial caregiver.” When asked her how she managed both to work and to provide care, Myrna replies, “My corporate career came to a smashing end.” She switched to lower-paid jobs because she couldn’t meet the shift work demands of nursing. “I can now never retire, because all my resources have dwindled,” adds Myrna, who was recently laid off from her clerical position.

Canadian women have long been familiar with the inequities in the paid workforce. While the wage gap is closing, women now receive approximately 73 cents on the dollar of what working men receive. About a third of women still work part-time, and many women continue to work in the low-paying service sector. In addition to

low pay, these jobs afford few benefits, such as pensions.

In other words, most women can ill afford to give up their economic security to look after aging parents or other needy family members. The trend towards smaller families is also a factor. It means a shrinking pool of caregivers.

The fact is that caregiving comes at a high cost to many women, who feel they must curtail their paid work. Karen, 59, looked after her 87-year-old mother, who fell and broke her hip years ago. After the incident, Karen’s mother moved in with Karen and her husband. Karen, an actor, says her caregiving responsibilities require her to confine herself to occasional TV roles, as she is unable to take on stage roles that would require scheduled attendance. “I can’t chase after roles, and it is hard to go to auditions.”

At the same time, her social life is constrained, as she and her husband rarely enjoy a dinner or a movie out of the house. “I have learned to live frugally,” Karen explains. “We had to use our RRSPs, so won’t have enough pension later on.”

Women are, by and large, not financially equipped to look after their elders, especially given the inequities faced by senior women. The cold hard fact is that 17 percent of single Canadian women 65 years and older and living alone are at or below the poverty line. In Canada, approximately 1.8 million low-income seniors get the GIS, and just over half (54 percent) of GIS recipients are women. And the older they get, the more they will rely on the means-tested GIS.

For example, 62 percent of women aged 70 to74 are recipients. A look at the Canada Pension Plan (CPP) reveals the gender difference in the receipt of plan benefits. In 2011, Canadian men’s average monthly retirement benefit from the CPP was $603.51. For women it was a paltry $420.06.

The gap has remained constant for many years. These benefits clearly represent a culmination of the inequities women suffer, both in the paid and unpaid work they do.

What is to be done? Often mentioned is more respite care, drop-out arrangements, tax credits or extended leaves. It’s been a decade since Roy Romanow’s 2002 Royal Commission on the Future of Health Care in Canada recommended a national home care policy to replace the patchwork quilt of caregiving services, federally and provincially. Numerous experts concur with the need for such a policy, appropriate to current requirements. In 2009, the Senate called for a national caregiving strategy.

One solution is to make pensionable benefits available to caregivers for their unpaid work. A study paper in April 2010 on family caregiving, published by the Canadian Centre for Elder Law, found that “the pension regime currently provides little or no recognition to the unpaid family caregiving of adults.” It suggested the creation of a caregiver-specific pension.

There are already programs addressing such pensionable benefits in Australia and Norway. For Canadian women, this is now even more urgent, given that future unpaid caregivers will be without the OAS and GIS for two years longer.

It is not only the invisibility of unpaid work that demands recognition. On a larger economic scale, the many productive contributions of older Canadians are ignored due to the ageist belief that older people take from the economy, rather than give to it.

And yet, the reality is that seniors are among the largest groups of Canadian volunteers. They give generously to charities. They pay taxes on their income, including most of their pension income. Seniors also help to provide for their financially strapped adult children, especially in times of unemployment and recessions. Many grandparents also provide child care for their grandchildren, and many financially support their grandchildren’s educational and sports fees.

Demographic changes affecting aging women make it imperative that social policy-makers recognize that ageism and sexism are a destructive combination. The four million Canadian female baby boomers have enough collective political clout to make policy-makers listen. A vibrant women’s revolution, led by boomer activism, is what it will take to force policy developers to address the current and future needs of women as they age. As Dr. Carroll Estes, a professor at the University of California, says, it is time for the “missing feminist revolution”—that of older women.

Lillian Zimmerman is research associate with the Gerontology Research Centre at Simon Fraser University. Her book Baglady or Powerhouse: A Roadmap for Midlife (Boomer) Women was published in 2009.

-This article was published in the Winter 2013 issue of Herizons. Subscribe Now and read Canada's most popular feminist magazine. Just $26.45 plus taxes at