Working and caring – patterns of eldercare

The most rapidly growing part of our population is the age group 85 plus – a group in which a high proportion of people require some support and assistance. At the same time we are seeing more and older people in paid work as they enjoy improved health and longer life and also need to build nest eggs for their retirement. Bringing these trends together means than many employees in their 50s and 60s, or even older, have competing responsibilities towards their employer and to their elders who need care. This trend is likely to become even more important in the future, as more very old people, often with significant disabilities or chronic health conditions, remain in their own homes in the community – “ageing in place”. Employers will increasingly need to include eldercare responsibilities as an aspect of family-friendly policies in the work place. Most of the initiatives to promote work-life balance and family-friendly workplaces concern the needs of working parents of young children, such as paid parental leave. Employers may be less aware of eldercare issues and what is needed to address them.

Most of the care recipients in the first New Zealand study of working carers[1] were parents or close relatives in the parents’ generation. We classified the types of care provided into four categories:

  • Social and emotional support was the most common type and involved checking on the older person by phone, visiting, taking them out, reading to them, writing letters, playing cards, etc.
  • Household assistance came next – help with shopping, transport, laundry, preparing meals, gardening and home maintenance.
  • Administrative support came third in importance and included helping with completing forms and documents, managing money and arranging assistance from agencies.
  • Personal care was the least common form reported (although still by nearly half of carers) and may involve help with dressing, washing, eating, taking medication, or toileting.

Other types of support included being on call, managing hospital visits, liaison with other family members and health professionals. Women respondents in the research – most frequently daughters and daughters-in-law – were more likely than their male counterparts to provide all types of care, especially social and emotional support and personal care. They were also more likely to give care on a frequent basis – daily or several times a week. Stereotypically, this is seen as a “natural” extension of female predominance in caring roles, whether paid or unpaid and is borne out by New Zealand census data.

Many participants in the study made it clear that eldercare does not cease when the older person enters residential care, except for a reduction in the area of personal care. Indeed, assisting with a move into a new environment itself imposes special demands. Emotional needs remain a concern and several people expressed a lack of faith in professional carers.

The men and women in the study were involved in long-term care, ranging from under a year to over ten years. About half provided three hours or less per week but others much more. A time commitment of 10 or more hours per week is significant on top of a (usually) full-time job. Women carers were much more likely to be providing long hours of care than men.

As a general rule the time given to all types of care reduced with increasing distance between the working carers and recipients. However, several people gave social and emotional care to elders living over an hour away, sometimes daily or several times a week. Wellington members of our focus groups talked about managing care of elders who lived in Rotorua and New Plymouth, as well as in the Kapiti Coast and Wairarapa.

Andrea[2] cares for her parents, who live four hours drive away. She goes up there at least once a month, mostly using her annual leave and does the big things around the house. Her brother helps out regularly, but doesn’t cope with the situation as well as Andrea does.

Sharing eldercare care, especially between siblings – usually the adult children of the elders – was a prominent topic in the group discussions. It can give rise to tension and resentment, with different perspectives within families, different experiences of family interactions, conflicting demands of work and domestic commitments and sometimes difficult choices to be made. Inequality may be based on location – the family member who is “on the spot” often gets an unequal load.

I am one of seven children, four of us in town. The care is very much shared, but because I lived with Mum for so long, it is me who knows what to do and me that my brothers and sister turn to when the going gets a bit tough. They think that if we need to persuade Mum to do something, I will get it done.

We have stopped having family meetings now. They just got really fraught and I used to get angry. As time goes I do see that they [my brothers] do care as well, but they just cope differently.

Coming next – How does eldercare affect work?

[1] Judith Davey and Sally Keeling (2004) Combining work and Eldercare: a study of employees in two City Councils who provide informal care for older people. Funded through the Department of Labour’s “Future of Work” Fund. In the study 85% of the carers were aged 40 plus and the average age of the care recipients was 81.

[2] We have used pseudonyms for participants in the research.

About Age Concern New Zealand 'on research'

At the heart of everything Age Concern does is a passion to see older people experience well-being, respect, dignity, and to be included and valued. We support, inform and advise older people on issues such as access to health care, transport, housing, financial entitlements, and social opportunities. We also work to combat real problems in our society, like elder abuse and neglect, chronic loneliness and social isolation. We provide specialist services with trained and qualified professionals able to give expert advice and assistance. Age Concern is a charity and relies on the support of volunteers and public donations to do much of the work we do. To help us help older people, please consider making a donation of your time or money. To see how, visit
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