The Caregiver Experience

The Changing Face of the Caregiver

Sophie Leveque

Historically, when older loved ones were in need of caregiving, they didn’t have to look very far. There was usually a close family member who could easily step into the role. But, over the last several decades, much has changed when it comes to who fulfills the role of caregiver. It’s no longer a given that a dutiful daughter will take on caregiving responsibilities for an aging parent, a shifting tide that can be attributed to a combination of demographic and cultural changes. These changes are also having a profound impact on the caregiver experience.

Some of these shifts include:

  • Shrinking average family size. Fewer children means a smaller pool of caregivers from which to draw. From the caregiver perspective, there are fewer relatives with whom to share responsibilities or turn to when more intervention is needed.

  • Geographic distance. Nowadays, people are more open to moving away from their hometowns for educational, career and personal reasons, often leaving behind their parents and loved ones. This means that older adults don’t have immediate, local assistance, and that their children or younger relatives may often be providing care remotely.
  • Evolving cultural attitudes. Traditional expectations around the duty of younger generations for caring for their older relatives are changing. For example, some cultural traditions dictated that older parents move in with their adult-aged children, but shifting norms may have mitigated some of these cultural pressures. 

  • Employment trends. Historically, daughters whose own children were grown may have assumed the caregiving mantle, but as more women have joined the formal workforce, it has become more difficult for them to take on caregiving responsibilities.

  • More single-person households. If an adult child or loved one becomes a caregiver, there is not always someone within their own household who can “pick up the slack” and tend to normal family and household management.

  • Parents having children later in life. With the age gap widening between generations, modern caregivers may have more non-caregiving responsibilities they have may have had historically. They may be in a stage where their careers need a great deal of attention, may have young children of their own, or may still be finishing school.

  • Longer life expectancies. With advancements in medicine, caregiving is no longer the temporary arrangement it may have once been. Older adults may require more care for longer periods of time.
In a recent Healthways webinar on the relationship between caregiving and well-being, Joe Coughlin of the MIT AgeLab discussed these changing demographic and cultural trends in detail. According to Coughlin, the data suggests that these shifts will only become more marked over time, which, in turn, will only make caregiving more complex.

Infographic provided by Respect a Caregiver's Time (REAct).

Coughlin discussed some fascinating insights into the changing face of the modern caregiver. As he noted, in this new age of caregiving, the caregiver can be anyone: sons, daughters, spouses, friends, or siblings. That said, studies have shown that the responsibility for giving care usually—as it has historically— falls to women. These women are typically the spouse or oldest daughter of the individual needing care and are between the ages of 47 and 57.

But unlike the stereotypical caregiver—who never participated in the formal economy or is retired—we also know that modern day caregivers are often employed. Data from the 2014 Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index® tells us that 13.4 percent of caregivers are full-time employees. And while traditionally caregivers have been middle-aged, Coughlin reports that today’s caregivers may be in a younger age category. As we discussed earlier, with caregivers skewing younger, they’re often working as well. In fact, the Well-Being Index tells us that nearly one in 10 full-time employees under the age of 45 is a caregiver.

As a result, today’s caregivers are often juggling the care of their aging loved ones, which for 25 percent of American families consumes more than 21 hours a week, with workplace responsibilities and their own families (see infographic). As Coughlin explored in our webinar, these multiple time and energy demands can have a dramatic effect on individual well-being, a topic we’re going to address in an upcoming article.

To learn more about shifting demographics around caregiving, as well as its link to well-being, please view our recent webinar, “The Costs of Caring: The Impact of Caregiving on your Population’s Well-Being". Our team of panelists also discussed several strategies for supporting caregivers in your organization.


Topics: Well-Being Aging Caregiving