Older people as caregivers – a new report from Massey University

Judith Davey

August 2016

Unpaid caring work is an essential part of our society; without it the demands which could be placed on government-provided services – and the taxpayer – would be unsustainable.

But such work is undervalued and under acknowledged. It has always been difficult to get information about unpaid caring work from the New Zealand Census, in fact there was a proposal for the questions on “activities” to be dropped from the 2018 individual census form (this received a large number of submissions in favour of keeping them).

So, it was good to see a short report from Massey University’s Health, Work and Retirement Study – The Characteristics and Experiences of Older New Zealand Caregivers (July 2016, see hart.massey.ac.nz). These were people aged 55 to 79 who had indicated in the 2013 postal survey, that they had provided practical assistance to a person with a long-term condition, disability or frailty in the previous year. The number in the sample was not great (168), but the information throws light on what caregiving can mean in this age group.

As might be expected, two-thirds of the caregivers were female and well over half were retired or not in the paid workforce. Almost half of the people being cared for were partners or spouses, with the next highest category parents or in-laws – from which we can imply older people; only 9% cared for a child. This fits with the fact that the need for help had been a gradual transition for most people, linked to increasing frailty. Over half the care recipients lived with their caregiver. The majority provided care on a daily basis.

The most frequently provided forms of care related to everyday needs such as shopping for groceries, preparing meals, transportation, doing laundry and managing money (such as paying bills and keeping track of expenses). For some of these there was extra help from paid or voluntary supporters. Family/whanau, community health, ambulance and respite services were reported as having provided the most helpful assistance.

The really interesting part of the report is the findings on the impact which caregiving was having on the caregivers’ lives – 40% found it positive, 30% neutral and 30% negative. Those finding it positive were more likely to be male and providing fewer care hours per week. Those who were better off reported more positive value in the caregiving role as did those with better health, greater life satisfaction and less loneliness. This made me think of the situation of an older woman, in poor health herself and living on NZS only, caring for her ailing husband, unable to get out much and receiving very little public sector support. I know women in this situation and probably you do too. What can be done for them?

Many of the younger caregivers were still in paid work. They reported using unpaid leave, sick leave or annual leave to provide care when needed. Often this involved a crisis situation. The findings mirror those which we found in a study of working carers, which Sally Keeling and I carried out in 2004, and in similar studies done in the UK [1]. I would like to think that this research and submissions made based on it, helped to influence legislative change. Legislation from 2008 brought in the right for people who had caring responsibilities to request flexible work arrangements (later extended to all workers, but still at the discretion of employers). However, in the 2013 Massey research only a quarter of the working carers were aware of this right. Flexible work arrangements that are accessible, and perhaps dedicated carers’ leave allocations, are not as widespread as they should be. Sympathetic employers and co-workers are not the norm, as we found earlier.

This research has implications for public policy. It shows that caregiving can be a positive experience for older people, provided that caregivers are given appropriate and sufficient support. The trend towards ageing in place, supported by health policies and receiving more emphasis through the draft revised Health of Older People Strategy, means that many more very old people, with high levels of dependency, will be cared for in the community by family members. This burden will fall especially on women. Female caregivers have been found to receive less informal assistance and to have fewer resources to call upon, including income and wealth, than their male counterparts. This might call for better income support and financial assistance for people in this situation. Older caregivers also need help to maintain their own social networks and activities and thus to offset loneliness and social isolation. This calls for better provision of respite care and home support services.

Among my friends we have jokingly talked about a stage in women’s lives which may be called “ailing men.” But this is a real and sometimes unenviable situation. The role of caregiver to frail and disabled older people applies not only to women, of course, all people in this situation deserve recognition and help, as their numbers are bound to grow and we cannot allow their situation to worsen.



[1] Davey, J. and Keeling, S. (2004) Combining work and Eldercare: a study of employees in two City Councils who provide informal care for older people. Future of Work Report, Department Of Labour, Wellington

About Age Concern New Zealand 'on research'

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