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Why care?

If your parents required care, would you or a family member provide care for them or would you look for outside help? If you required care in your old age would you expect a family member to provide care? Eldercare is becoming an important policy issue in advanced economies as a result of demographic and socio-economic changes. It is estimated that by 2030, one quarter of the population will be over 65 in both Europe and the USA (OECD, 2011). New funding regimes across the EU are often in the form of cash transfers and thus leave the choice of how to provide the care to families, and some worrying news about the quality of care provided in nursing homes combine to make families consider providing the care themselves as the better and cheaper option. In practice, this means that some family members may be under more pressure than others to choose to provide the care themselves, so a big question is what motivates them, and what happens to their satisfaction as they opt for providing the care themselves in house.

An important factor in the decision to care for one’s own elderly parents are social norms: the EUROFAMCARE study finds that emotional bonds and a sense of duty are very important to determine the decision to care. Whilst there is a wealth of research examining support services, there is less research on private informal care for elderly parents by their own children, and the focus of such research is typically on the labour supply of care-givers, rather than their satisfaction and the motivations behind their choice. And yet these issues affect many people; when looking at the respondents to the BHPS and focussing on those with living parents and whose parents are aged 70 and over, we find around 20% of women and 14% men state they provide some care for their parents.

When one looks more closely, some interesting facts emerge. It is not only that people are more likely to choose to care for their parents if they agree with the statement “Adult children have an obligation to look after their elderly parents” (a question asked to respondents to the British Household Panel Survey), but also that this makes them experience a positive return in terms of life satisfaction, which compensates for the negative impact that the hours of care themselves have.

There are important gender differences in the decision – women are overwhelmingly responsible for this provision of care for parents, both in and outside the household. They are also more likely to agree with the norm and more likely to experience this warm glow feeling from performing the care, and this is in spite of the fact that when it comes to the care itself they actually find it more burdensome than men, perhaps because they are in charge of the less pleasant tasks, such as personal care.

These gender differences are important and should be considered when evaluating the likely impacts of policy reform; financial and demographic considerations have been at the heart of elder care reforms. However, care provision needs to consider also the factors motivating unpaid care provision within households, which remains a key part of the provision. Although there may be a strong demand for eldercare services provided by the market, the pressure towards cash-for-care provision may not be the right solution in all situations, and that polices towards flexible employment accompanied by support to caregivers at home may be more appropriate for both those needing care and those who care for them. The difference between caring for a co-resident and non-resident parent is also important and needs to be taken into account in policy formulation. From a gender perspective, it is apparent that the effect of caring norms on women and men is not symmetric, and this should be taken into account for equity purposes when designing the relevant policies. Our results prove further that a gender disaggregated analysis is essential to understand the likely evolution of this sector.

Headline image credit: Clasped Hands, by Rhoda Baer. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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