• There will be global shortages in the caregiving sector as the world population ages.
  • Informal or unpaid caregivers, such as family members, are the backbone of caregiving, given the profession is so badly paid and protected.
  • Organisations need to get interested in their employees’ caregiving needs.

Around the world, millions of people each year assume the role of family caregiver, for which they have no formal training or preparation. As the world population ages and the number of paid caregivers stagnates, an increasing number of adults are indeed juggling caring for elderly family members with holding down full-time jobs, and raising children.

This trend is unlikely to reverse, given that the UN estimates that by 2050, the number of people over the age of 65 will have doubled to 1.5 billion; one in six people in the world will be in this age group.

The estimated economic value of the services provided by informal caregivers in the United States has grown rapidly from $50 billion in 2009 to $470 billion in 2017. These caregivers not only give their time to caring for loved ones, but often face financial repercussions, due to out-of-pocket costs, as well as reduced income and retirement savings.

Organisations and employers urgently need to reevaluate their policies surrounding family leave, caregiving support and job flexibility

—Alyaa AlMulla

Economic, societal and health gains have been documented surrounding equipping our governments, workplaces and healthcare systems with improved support for these caregivers.

Who cares anyway?

Who Cares?,” a recent report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development (OECD), outlines why we are likely to face a “care crisis” in the coming years. The report points out that we currently have a ratio of 5 paid caregivers to every 100 people over the age of 65.

Paid caregivers are more than twice as likely to work part-time as the average worker, have jobs characterized by low pay and low job security, and 60% of paid caregivers report being exposed to physical risk factors at work. Such data, tkaen together, helps explain why the number of paid caregivers is not rising.

Informal or unpaid caregivers — including friends, family and even neighbors of elderly people — are the backbone of caregiving and will be critical to filling inevitable global shortages in the formal care sector. Government and workplace policies that support this kind of informal caregiving, however, remain few and far between.

Recently, the COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the need to better empower these caregivers.

Many informal caregivers had to take on more responsibilities, adjust and modify living spaces, and spend more time providing care during lockdown restrictions.

While some aspects of caregiving can be incredibly rewarding, informal caregivers report high rates of mental health declines, exhaustion, depression and burnout.

How can we change this? The answer lies in both societal and cultural change and governmental and workplace policies.

Caregiving as a life skill

To equip future generations to be caregivers, we must develop caregiving as a life skill. Just as we teach literacy and technology skills, we must better integrate human soft skills into educational curricula.

Children who grow up in households where they witness multigenerational caregiving during their upbringing are better prepared to become caregivers themselves, but this example-setting must also occur in more formal ways.

Equipping humans and future generations with the right set of emotional competencies, skills and compassion will not only serve them in caregiving challenges, but also give up all more resilient communities.

In many cultures around Asia, the Middle East and Africa, caregiving for elderly family and community members has been a well-established part of the culture for centuries. But even in settings like these, speaking out about the challenges of caregiving can be perceived negatively.

It is important around the world to offer culturally sensitive support programs and empowerment tools that not only teach caregiving skills, but also provide caregivers themselves with opportunities to share and reflect on how to improve their own self-care.

Redesigning workplaces

Productivity losses to US businesses related to informal caregiving have been estimated to be as much as $33.6 billion (in 2004) for full-time employed caregivers. Caregivers may not only experience lost work hours but higher stress levels than non-caregivers, leading to an effect on their workplace performance.

Organisations and employers urgently need to reevaluate their policies surrounding family leave, caregiving support and job flexibility. The day that workplaces offer flexible and agile scheduling options and protect employees’ jobs with anti-discrimination policies, they will be rewarded with more resilient, productive and engaged employees.

The first place that organisations can begin to get a grasp on caregiving support is by measuring and understanding their employees’ caregiving needs.

COVID-19 has propelled some action in this area, as the boom in working from home has shone a light on the need to equip employees with new ways of balancing home and work responsibilities. However, these steps must continue post-pandemic.

Multipronged approach

To be ready for the global demographic change toward an older population, we need a multipronged approach.

This is not something that governments can solve alone. We must harness the power of technology, equip our healthcare systems and build in foresight. In addition we must ensure government and workplace policies are more proactive, agile and flexible. Simply waiting for another global health or social crisis to come along is not an option, as it will only expose a lack of preparedness when it comes to this fundamental part of our human nature: giving and receiving care.