Caring for parents is more complicated nowadays
Historically, caring for parents has always been core family business, but major shifts in society means that carents today are facing unprecedented challenges.
People are living longer
Contemporary carents in the UK are from the boomer generation and are the first to face the caring implications of our ageing demographic. Back in their post WWII childhood, few people lived beyond their three score years and ten - average life expectancy for males was only 68 years. Since then, progressive improvements in treatment and care for common diseases like heart attacks, stroke and cancer means that people are living much longer - life expectancy for males in 2019 was 79 years and increasingly more people are living to 100 and beyond.
Multiple chronic health problems
Whilst people are living longer, the reality for many is that those additional years of life are often plagued by poor health arising from age related disabilities and chronic health problems like heart disease, cancer or dementia. Increasingly, older people are living with more than one health problem kept under wraps by a busy schedule of health and social care appointments, and a cocktail of prescribed medicines, specialist equipment and therapy. Providing adequate support to this generation requires carents to have unusually high levels of health literacy i.e. an understanding of these chronic diseases, their progression, management and possible complications alongside an appreciation of how different care services are provided, funded and commissioned. It also necessitates that carents have both time and patience to organise and support the multitude of appointments and interactions.
Frailty and major shifts in wellbeing
Another new challenge for modern day carents is frailty. Frailty is a longevity specific problem, related to the ageing process in which multiple body systems gradually lose their built in reserves. Shorter lifespans in previous generations meant that frailty was relatively uncommon, but nowadays between 25-50% of those aged over 85 suffer from frailty. In response to apparently minor events such as an infection or change of medicine, people living with frailty can suffer dramatic changes in physical and mental wellbeing. This can mean that carents suddenly find themselves grappling with a major shift in the level of support their parents need.
Working women lack time
Traditionally, carenting has been undertaken by women in the family, and this societal expectation has endured. However because women today can at least enjoy greater equality in the workplace, they are more likely to be employed and have significantly less available time for carenting than previous generations.
Sandwich carers are caring for parents and children
Better work opportunities and contraception mean that boomers have been more likely to delay having children. Consequently, couples in middle age can find themselves “sandwiched” between caring for school age children and caring for parents.
Other social trends colour the context in which support can be provided. Increased geographical mobility means that carents are less likely to live in close proximity to their ageing parents and must juggle the challenges and time constraints with the added trials of long journeys and unfamiliar support services.
More recently, the COVID19 pandemic is presenting further hurdles. Carents must now provide their support in the face of social isolation, COVID secure services, shielding, and economic uncertainty.
Its time to help carents, caring for parents
The essence of our humanity remains constant, and the love and compassion which fuels carenting will certainly endure and transcend regardless.
But carents are navigating uncharted waters without appropriate support. Government, employers, industry and families must find new ways to accommodate and adapt to this ageing society so that everyone can reap the rewards of longevity.
The clock is ticking – let’s start talking, planning and acting.
References and Helpful Resources
Government Office for Science (2016) Future of an ageing population
Chapter 5 explores the caring role of families and how this could be affected by changes in the role of women and changes in family structures
PHE (2017) Health profile for England
Chapters 3 and 4 explore healthy and unhealthy life expectancy