Hidden carers: the sandwich generation
Part 5 of a 9 part series
Beverley works full-time. She does her grandchildren’s school run every morning, and spends one evening a week and every Saturday with her 85-year-old mother, who lives alone and is increasingly frail.
“This isn’t how I pictured being 60. I do think, gosh, when will I be allowed to get old myself?” Beverley said. “I thought I’d be slowing down now and shedding my responsibilities, but I’m going to be juggling work and caring for many years to come – with the caring lasting well past retirement age.”
Beverley is part of the sandwich generation – people who care for ageing parents while supporting their children. When the term was coined, it generally referred to people in their 30s and 40s. Now the sandwich generation has grown older and deeper. People in their 50s, 60s and 70s are caring for their elderly parents, needy adult children and lively grandchildren. The sandwich has become a triple.
Experts say the layers of responsibility will soon grow, with pensioner children caring for two generations either side of them, from grandparent to grandchild. At the same time, the government will expect these adult children to work ever longer and save more for their own old age.
The statistics are striking. One in five people aged 50-64 in the UK are carers to an older family member. A third of the country’s 6.5 million informal carers are aged 65 and over, while the number of those aged 75 and over has increased by 35% since 2001.
Then there’s the care of the grandchildren: there is a “hidden army” of grandparents helping their adult children who cannot afford mounting childcare costs. At least 80% of grandmothers in England with a grandchild under 16 provide childcare – nearly 2 million of whom deplete their state pension by giving up work, reducing their hours or taking time off to help their adult children cope.
Not only do these grandparents contribute £9bn annually to clothes, toys and hobbies, pocket money, holidays and savings, but the expense of looking after children forces just under a fifth – 17% – of grandparent-childminders to dip into savings, and 5% to go into debt.
At the same time, 28% of grandparents with a grandchild under 16 have a parent who is still alive and who might well have to turn to their retired child for care in future.
Dr Debora Price, director of the Manchester Institute for Collaborative Research on Ageing at the University of Manchester, believes the number of people aged over 65 providing care to their parents and grandchildren is likely to increase.
“While they are still relatively young, they also face competing pressures to continue in the paid workforce under the government’s extending working lives agenda and with rises in the state pension age. But they are also expected to – and do – care for their grandchildren,” she said. “And of course as these carers age, they also become more likely to have a spouse who may need care, or to start to encounter health problems themselves.”
Two weeks ago, David Mowat, the parliamentary undersecretary of state for care and support, made headlines with his comments that families should give as much support to elderly parents as they do to children.
The social care crisis was now so great, he told MPs on the House of Commons communities and local government select committee, that families could no longer rely on the state. Already, forecasters are warning that the social care burden on the budget will double over the next 50 years, from 1.1 percent of GDP at the moment to 2 percent.
“One of the things that has struck me is no one ever questions that we look after our children,” he said. “I think some of that logic and some of the way we think about that … will have to impinge on the way we think about caring for our parents. Because it is a responsibility in terms of our life cycle which is similar.”
I’ve spoken to Prof Alan Walker, director of the New Dynamics of Ageing programme, several times during this series. In the past he has weighed his words with care, but this time he was so incensed by Mowat’s “breathtaking lack of awareness” that he lambasted the minister’s “refusal to acknowledge the abject failure by the state and successive governments to support carers”.
“The term ‘humanitarian crisis’, the use of which by the Red Cross was criticised by the prime minister, is spot on and can only be denied by those who have no clue about what is happening in the real world of care,” he said.
“With a breathtaking lack of awareness, Mowat has tried to deflect his government’s own responsibility and push it on to families, where in fact it already rests,” Walker said. “Community care is a myth: care for older people is overwhelmingly self-care and family care. And the fact that carers are predominantly – by a ratio of two to one – adult daughters and daughters-in-law makes this a major case of gender discrimination.”
Contrary to Mowat’s implication, the evidence shows the deep sense of obligation felt by family members and the extraordinary lengths they go to in order to care for their parents. The evidence is also of widespread carer fatigue and breakdown – carers are twice as likely to suffer from mental health problems – as well as discrimination in the jobs market.
Walker believes the point Mowat fails to understand is that families need support to maximise their caring capacity. Many require an alternative to what is, at best, “a casualty service that waits for them to break down before offering help, if they are lucky”. This approach, he points out, leads to huge costs for the exchequer as well as human costs for older people and their family carers.
And what of the carers who have no children to care for them? As of this year, there are more older people in need of care than there are adult children able to provide it. One in five people over 50 have no children. There are 1 million over-65s without adult children in the UK, a figure expected to double by 2030. The data does not include people who are without their children because of bereavement, estrangement, distance or any other reason.
More than 20 years ago, Ming Ho was an Oxford contemporary of David Cameron and Michael Gove, and she read English with the latter. “Back then, my future looked as bright as theirs,” she said.
By the 1990s Ho was a script executive at Zenith Productions and working on multiple primetime TV dramas. But as an only child of a widow, Ho, who is now in her 50s, has had to shoulder full responsibility for her mother’s care. “After two decades of missed work opportunities and life chances while attending to mum’s needs, I have found myself single, childless, and with virtually no savings. I am having to start again,” she said. “This is not the life I imagined or planned for myself.”
John and Lindsay Allen are 65 and live in a small village in rural Cheshire. They cared for their parents as they aged. Now only John’s mother remains alive. As with many carers, the experience of caring for their parents has made them worry about their own old age.
“My father-in-law would have died years earlier had he not had Lindsay and me fighting for him at every turn,” said John Allen. “That personal level of support will not be there for us and it is obvious that the state will provide the bare minimum.”
Without children of their own, the Allens are looking at every way they can think of to avoid a “long, drawn-out period of anguish at the end of our lives”. This includes euthanasia.The couple are devastatingly clear about the choices that lie ahead of them. “What prompted our interest in euthanasia is that we don’t have children,” he said. “We’re having to look at all the options … because we don’t have anyone to put us first.”
This article was written by Amelia Hill from The Guardian and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.