Women who early in life care for elderly parents are at higher risk of poverty later

August 14, 2004

HOUSTON -- (Aug. 14, 2004) - Taking on the role of caregiver earlier in life can worsen women's economic well-being later in life, according to a study by sociologists at Rice University in Houston.

Using data from the 1992 and 2000 Health and Retirement Study, the researchers analyzed the long-term financial effects of caring for elderly parents.

"If women assumed caregiver roles, they were 2.5 times more likely than non-caregivers to live in poverty and five times more likely to receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI)," wrote Katharine Donato and Chizuko Wakabayashi in a paper that will be presented Aug. 14 at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in San Francisco.

Donato is an associate professor of sociology at Rice; Wakabayashi is a Rice sociology postdoctoral student who has received funding from Houston Endowment Inc. to work on the Houston Area Survey.

Public and private agencies have sought ways to lower costs by shifting the burden of elder care to families; as a result, approximately 80 percent of elder care is now provided by family members, mostly women. "The potential economic and social consequences of informal elder care for these women may be enormous," said Donato, noting that approximately 45 percent of females who are 18 or older are not currently married, and many simultaneously assume both roles as earners and caregivers.

The time spent taking care of elderly parents is likely to compete with women's employment opportunities, creating losses in working hours and earnings. The cumulative effect of this scenario contributes to elderly women's disproportionately higher risk of living in poverty. In 2002, 14 percent of women who are 75 or older lived in poverty, but only 8 percent of comparably aged men lived in poverty.

The Health and Retirement Study that Donato and Wakabayashi used for their research is an ongoing national longitudinal study that has been conducted every two years from 1992 to 2002 by the University of Michigan's Population Studies Center and the National Institute on Aging. The initial study sample consisted of 12,654 people between the ages of 51 and 61 and their spouses and partners in 7,608 households that represent over-samples of Hispanics, blacks and Florida residents.

To examine the effects of women's caregiving on the risk of living in poverty, the Rice researchers used a sample of 685 women who had at least one living parent during 1991-92 and were at least 65 years old eight years later (1999-2000). To understand the effects of caregiving on women's receipt of SSI, the researchers used a second sample of 465 women from these same categories, but with one additional criterion: the women were not receiving SSI or Social Security benefits in 1991-92. SSI is a federal income supplement program that provides cash benefits to the aged, permanently blind and totally disabled whose annual incomes are well below the federal poverty line.

Donato and Wakabayashi compared the demographics of the caregivers and non-caregivers. Caregivers were more likely than non-caregivers to have less than a high school education (34 vs. 22 percent in the first sample and 29 vs. 17 percent in the second sample). Caregivers were also significantly more likely to be single (40 percent in the first sample and 52 percent in the second). More than 80 percent of the caregivers and non-caregivers had at least one sibling.

"The adverse impact of caregiving was especially severe for women who took on this role in their early sixties," Donato said. Fifteen percent of women 60-61 years old who were caregivers were likely to live in poverty, compared to 4 percent of the non-caregivers. Among women 58-59 years old, the likelihood of poverty for caregivers and non-caregivers was only 6 percent and 5 percent, respectively. "This finding has serious implications because it suggests more daughters are becoming caregivers of parents who are 85 or older," Donato said.

The researchers used their data to predict whether and how the caregiving experience affects the likelihood of living in poverty and receiving SSI. Among their findings:In a previous study, Donato and Wakabayashi analyzed the substantial reduction in weekly hours worked and annual earnings of women who took time to care for elderly parents. The amount varied according to demographics, but some caregivers experienced a reduction of more than $10,000 in annual earnings. Despite such outcomes, the researchers noted that informal caregiving is still not recognized as a public concern.

They echo that observation in the current study and suggest ways to remedy a situation that is likely to increase public expenses in the long run as women assume the responsibility of elder care and increase their risk of poverty and reliance on public assistance.

"What is needed is a system that shares the burden of elder care between private families and state and federal governments," said Wakabayashi. One way to share the responsibility of elder care might be to cover more home- and community-based services. "The longer we can keep the elderly living in their homes and communities, the more we can control the costs of elder care by postponing or avoiding expensive nursing home placements," she said.

Another strategy for sharing costs is to provide government compensation to family members who have assumed the role of caregiver, especially to low-income caregivers.

Donato and Wakabayashi acknowledge that such changes represent a considerable expense for federal and local governments. "But without this intervention, more elderly women are certain to live below the poverty threshold in the next 20 years - after caregiving and surviving their parents," the authors wrote in their paper.

Rice University

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