I have often opined that the economic contribution of parents should be better recognised, not least by mothers and fathers themselves.  Likewise, a recent report has found that the contribution of family members that look after elderly family members is huge and an essential part of our social, health, and economic systems. The economic contributions of these invisible workforces often go unnoticed when provided by family members, as opposed to employed nannies or caregivers.

In its ‘Valuing the Invaluable: 2015 Update’, the AARP Public Policy Institute studied the economic value of family caregiving and the crucial economic service those who provide unpaid care and support provide. The institute focuses on a wide range of issues of concern to older Americans, and found that in 2013 about 40 million family caregivers in the United States provided an estimated 37 billion hours of care to an adult with some sort of caregiving need. A survey of workers over 24 found that 23 percent of Americans say they are currently providing unpaid care to a relative or friend, most commonly for a parent or parent-in-law. Among these, 22 percent said that they provide about 21 hours a week or more of unpaid care in addition to holding down a paying job.  They helped with tasks such as bathing and dressing, shopping and meal preparation, transportation, and financial management. 

The estimated economic value of their unpaid contributions in America is huge – approximately $470 billion in 2013, up from an estimated $450 billion in 2009.  It would be interesting to see how figures around the world compare with this.  As the numbers of elderly people increase in the coming decade in a majority of countries, the numbers of family caregivers needed will too.    How can we best support them and ensure the elderly are looked after well?  The report finds that family caregivers increasingly face a number of challenges:

Family members have always been the mainstay for providing care to aging and other relatives or friends who need assistance with everyday living. Yet family caregiving today is more complex, costly, stressful, and demanding than at any time in human history. Experts suggest that the family’s capacity to carry out its traditional functions is becoming strained due to the pace of social, health, and economic change.

Family members and close friends often undertake caregiving willingly. Although many find it an enriching experience and a source of deep satisfaction and meaning, millions of people who take on this unpaid caregiving role … have no idea what to do, how to do it, or where to get help. These family caregivers are vulnerable themselves.

…Findings from the Stress in America survey show that those who serve as family caregivers to older relatives report higher levels of stress and poorer health than the population at large. More than half of caregivers surveyed said that they felt overwhelmed by the amount of care their family member needs.

There is a worrying care gap looming.  The baby boomers began turning 65 in 2011 and the oldest start reaching age 80 in just 11 years (2026). The family has historically been the major care provider for older relatives and those with disabilities, but the number of potential family caregivers is declining with declining birth rates. There will be less young people to support large numbers of elderly people. The report further finds that:

The caregiver support ratio has begun what will be a steep decline: decreasing from a high of 7.2 in 2010 to 6.8 potential family caregivers for every person in the high-risk years in 2015. By 2030, as the boomers transition from family caregivers into old age themselves, the ratio will decline sharply to 4 to 1. It is expected to fall further to less than 3 to 1 in 2050, when all boomers will be in the high-risk years of late life.

…The dramatic decline in the caregiver support ratio suggests that the increasing numbers of very old people—with some combination of frailty, and physical and cognitive disabilities—will have fewer potential family members on whom they can rely for everyday help. Overall care burdens will likely intensify, and place greater pressures on individuals within families, especially as baby boomers move into old age.

The report warns that, to both address the growing care gap as the population ages and lessen the strain in the daily lives of caregiving family members, more meaningful public policies and private sector initiatives are needed now. 

Shannon Roberts

Shannon Roberts is co-editor of MercatorNet's blog on population issues, Demography is Destiny. While she has a background as a barrister, writing has been a life-long passion and she has contributed...