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Fresh ideas on balancing work and eldercare

Women in their 50s and 60s are working longer whilst taking the lion’s share of care for ageing family members. As career opportunities begin to slim with care responsibilities often over spilling into working hours it’s clear that older women can have a tough time of it in the work place as well as at home.

Progressive thinktank The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) published a report this week (August 2013) which examines how caring constrains women’s choices and impacts their working lives as well as their health.

We believe that this report is hugely important to our membership at When They Get Older, so we’ve summarised it below and we’d love to hear any views you have on its proposals.

The key points of the report and its recommendations are:

  • Flexible working hours and well-paid part-time jobs aren’t readily available to those who need them most.
  • Employers should be contractually obligated to reduce working hours for those who need time off to care for a loved one in a time of need.
  • Many older employees feel cast aside by their employer and forced to leave once they begin to approach a retirement age.
  • Mentoring schemes should be introduced within UK organisations to show recognition for older employees’ expertise whilst allowing them to pass knowledge onto new employees.
  • “Care-swapping” recommended as a way to solve issues associated with long distance care which would foster community spirit and promote social responsibility for ageing population.

1 in 4 women over 45 are carers and there is a 50% chance that, by the age of 59, a woman will have had at least one period of substantial caring responsibilities in their lifetime.

The intense pressure working women experience whilst caught between care responsibilities for their children and elderly parents can be overwhelming. These women are faced with competing demands from both older and younger family members that cannot be fulfilled whilst continuing in fulltime work.

Lack of working flexibility failing women

In 2011, almost 40% of women in employment worked part-time hours as care commitments conflict with work hours and age discrimination pushes older women into part-time work and even unemployment as they struggle to balance work and care. With so much riding on one person the emotional and financial costs are staggering.

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt warns that “too many people feel unable to combine caring for a family member with working” which “will only get worse as we face the consequences of a dementia time bomb”. IPPR is calling for wider recognition of the vital support older women provide for their families as well as the vast contribution they make to the economy.

Over 70% of women aged 50 and over are in employment yet the lack of flexible working hours and low-paid nature of part-time work available to those who’re primary carers for family members act as significant disincentives to continue working.

Time to review time off

IPPR recommends a review of “reasonable time” off – a statutory entitlement for employees who need to leave work for an emergency. Currently it’s at the employers’ discretion whether or not to pay an employee for this time and also to define what amount of time is deemed reasonable.

Companies in Germany have already responded to an ageing population with growing care needs by providing employees with Familienpflegezeit (family caring time) – flexible contracts that allow a reduction in working hours to accommodate caring responsibilities for up to 2 years.

If UK employers were to implement a similar “family caring time” policy to support their staff through periods of intense caring this would relieve the financial pressure on women who’ve previously had to leave work due to mounting care responsibilities. By introducing a scheme that not only promotes job security but employee loyalty UK business can begin to facilitate older women who wish to continue working alongside caring for loved ones.

Adapting organisational roles

The IPPR has also suggested that a mentoring scheme should be put in place by UK employers in order to cater for women whose busy work schedules are beginning to conflict with their increasing care responsibilities. Women would not have to give up work if presented with an opportunity to adapt their role within an organisation and become a mentor for younger employees.

Older workers may value this role not only as recognition of their experience but as a way of making an important, active contribution to their workplace during their last years of employment. It also represents a new challenge for older workers, which some may enjoy. Mentoring may therefore offer better outcomes for all concerned than ‘wind-down’ schemes which simply reward people for their years of work.

Reciprocal care scheme

Just under 70% of people who provide care at a distance are doing so for an older relative. For women whose jobs restrict their ability to assist elderly family members on a regular basis there perhaps is already a solution.

Care4care a pilot scheme which relied on “time-banking” has been implemented on the Isle of Wight with great success. Members of the programme volunteered their time to care for elderly people within their community, and then “banked” this time for their future use or transferred it to relatives across the UK.

If this reciprocal care scheme were to be expanded throughout the UK the implications for working women are hugely beneficial. This “love thy neighbour” type approach to care could see Britain’s “care crisis” dramatically reversed as more people re-build a sense of community by donating their time to others. All-in-all this could be an innovative means of providing long-distance care in the future.

If you’d like to know more about the schemes and policy recommendations outlined in this article you can read IPPR’s full report “The Sandwich Generation: Older women balancing work and care” here.

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