Surprising Truths About Caregivers

Surprising Truths About CaregiversSurprising Truths About Caregivers

Caregiving is a part of daily life for millions of Americans, particularly the so-called sandwich generation balancing the needs of aging parents with looking after their own children.

A new study looks at just who is doing that caregiving, and who they're caring for, and some of the findings are surprising.

Published online in Population and Development Review last month, the research is believed to be the first to break down unpaid caregiving in the United States by age and gender of caregivers and those they care for, in their own homes or elsewhere, reports Medical News Today.

The study found that almost one-third of the US population are informal caregivers and collectively provide about 1.2 billion hours of unpaid work weekly, the equivalent of about 30.5 million full-time care aides. But the sandwich generation comprises just 3% of the population, much less than researchers anticipated.

The researchers were also surprised to find that elderly people were frequently being cared for by spouses, not their adult children. About 20% of caregiving time spent on people 80 years or older comes from people of the same age, they found.

"The extent to which spousal care is prevalent at old ages, 70 and 80 years old, was surprising to us," said lead author Emilio Zagheni, an assistant professor of sociology. "We expected to see more caregiving by adult children of their parents."

Older men provided slightly more spousal care than women, Zagheni said, which might be explained by men dying earlier, possibly before they need much care, and women living longer but being in poor health at older ages. And much less caregiving time was spent on elderly people compared with young children. Across the various age groups, elderly people received caregiving typically no more than 1.5 hours daily, on average, compared with six hours for young children.

The unexpectedly small number of sandwich generation caregivers, Zagheni said, could reflect the fact that while Americans are living longer, people are also having children later, so the two trends might counterbalance each other.

“That could be one reason,” he said. Or it could be that health overall is improving, so people at older ages don't need as much help.

Overall, women continue to shoulder the bulk of the caregiving burden in most situations. They provide 137 minutes of unpaid caregiving a day on average, compared with men's 110 minutes. Among the sandwich generation, the numbers increase to 181 and 157, respectively.