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Relying on family care in the 21st century?

Study shows growing gap between the numbers of elderly people needing care, and those able to provide it in future

While most of us are delighted that we're living longer than ever, the effects of an ageing population are a puzzle for researchers trying to anticipate the problems of the future. 

Among them is Linda Pickard who has been studying who will care for elderly people in decades to come.  

Her research has found that as many as 250,000 vulnerable pensioners could be left without family care by the year 2041 as the demographic shift takes effect. 

elderly womanMany frail older people – defined as those unable to carry out domestic tasks like shopping or bathing without help – rely on their adult children to act as carers and help them with these tasks.

But demand for this unpaid care by frail older people from their children is projected to rise by 90 per cent in the next 35 years - yet the number of offspring projected to provide the intense care likely to meet their needs (care for 20 hours a week or more) will only rise by 27 per cent.

Ms Pickard, from the Personal Social Services Research Unit at LSE, said: ''The older population, that is, people over the age of 65, is growing faster than the pool of people potentially providing unpaid care. Thus, there will be more older people who need care compared to younger people available to look after them.'

Her paper, entitled Informal Care for Older People Provided by their Adult Children,  takes data from the General Household Survey carried out by the Office for National Statistics. Using these figures, Ms Pickard makes projections for the coming years for both the likely demand for care and the likely supply.

The analysis suggests that the demand will start to outstrip supply as soon as 2017, with the care gap growing wider with every year to 2041 when projections are that there will be 1.3 million people needing care (compared to 600,000 in 2005).

There may be grave consequences for society as a whole. If the numbers of family members providing care increased to fill the care gap, then this would reduce the proportion of people who are able to go out to work.

And because about 60 per cent of those providing family care for the elderly are women (a proportion which is not expected to change in the coming years) it would seriously hamper government efforts to increase participation in the labour market. In other words the tax base would suffer and gender inequality would increase.

The research was prepared for the Strategy Unit at the Cabinet Office and for the Department of Health. As a result, it is one of many pieces of LSE research which may shape Government policy in future.

Summing up its implications, Ms Pickard said: 'In order to keep pace with demand, either more people will need to provide intense informal care, thus potentially decreasing labour market participation, or more formal services, in the shape of very intensive home care, 'extra care' housing or long-stay residential care, will need to be provided. This research raises questions about long-term care policies that rely heavily on informal or unpaid care.'

However she also makes clear that her research is a projection based on current data and assumptions rather than a forecast of the future. The present levels and nature of care provision are shaped by the policy climate of recent years and a different policy approach could deliver a different future.

 

Useful links

Informal Care for Older People Provided by their Adult Children| [PDF]

For full details of her research and publications see Linda Pickard's entry in the LSE Experts Directory: Ms Linda Pickard|

Personal Social Services Research Unit| 

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