• English

Demographic changes make policy support for family carers ever more pressing

We celebrate the International Day of Families on 15 May to acknowledge the important role that families play for the growth and well-being of their members – by providing mutual care and support to each other, across the life course. It is within families and communities that children are nurtured and socialized, and where intergenerational solidarity is lived. Grandparents in many families look after their grandchildren to enable their sons and daughters to work. They share their love, knowledge and experience with the new generation, fostering mutual understanding and solidarity. In turn, they hope to receive care and support if one day they need it.

Falling birth rates, longer life expectancy, and geographic mobility have transformed family life across the region. Extended families and multigenerational living arrangements are less common, family members more frequently geographically dispersed. Fewer people get married and rising separation and divorce rates have contributed to more diverse family and living arrangements, patchwork families but also increasing numbers of one-person households (explore data on families and households in the UNECE Statistical Database for trends in the region).

Despite these changes in family life, societies continue to heavily rely on family members to provide care for each other. At the same time, family caregivers are also expected to work. The sustainability of welfare systems requires higher labour market participation particularly of women and older people.

As working lives are extended not only working parents struggle to reconcile earning and caring responsibilities. Increasingly this also affects the generation of grandparents who provide unpaid care to grandchildren, spouses, and in some cases their own parents. In Italy – to give just one example - over 39 million people are involved in providing family care. Among these three million (8.4%) regularly take care of older people who require assistance, with significant repercussions on employment and their work/life balance, especially for women. While 60% of family carers providing care for older persons are between the ages of 45 and 54, 30% are over the age of 54. Over 54% of family carers are employed and need to juggle both work and care responsibilities (see Italian national report for MIPAA).

The Active Ageing Index — developed under a joint UNECE/European Commission project — includes two indicators on care provision by those at age 55 and above: care provided by older persons to children and grandchildren, and care provided to older adults or disabled relatives. They are included in the Active Ageing Index to take into account older people’s contribution to unpaid care work.

Older working carers need particular attention by policy makers and their numbers are likely to grow as a result of recent changes in labour market policy and pension systems. In 2002, in the Regional Implementation Strategy of the Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing (MIPAA), UNECE member States committed to “supporting families that provide care for older persons and promote intergenerational and intragenerational solidarity among their members” ( Commitment 9 of RIS/MIPAA).

The national reports submitted for the current 3rd cycle of review and appraisal of the implementation of MIPAA in the UNECE region (MIPAA+15) give examples of how they are supporting families in their caring roles across the life course.

In Portugal, for example, grandparents are entitled to time off work to look after their grandchildren when the child’s parents are unable to do so. Through a 2015 reform, grandparents working in the public sector were given the possibility to work part-time if they are over the age of 55 and have grandchildren under the age of 12 or grandchildren with a disability or chronic illness.

Austria introduced a legal entitlement to a care leave benefit for close relatives in 2013 to provide them with time to (re)organize their work/care balance, for instance when a new care need arises. It is paid at the same level as unemployment benefits for the period of 1-3 months.

Pension reforms in many countries furthermore enable older workers to choose flexible transitions to retirement by choosing part-time work that is topped up by partial pension payments (for example in Norway). This flexibility can enable many to reconcile caring and earing responsibilities while also taking care of their own health needs.

These policy examples and many others are shared in the MIPAA country reports. UNECE member States, researchers and civil society organizations will meet in Lisbon on 20-22 September to review progress made in the implementation of MIPAA in the region and set the priorities for the next five years. For more information about the 4th UNECE Ministerial Conference on Ageing that is organized by UNECE in cooperation with the Ministry of Labour, Solidarity, and Social Security of Portugal, visit the conference website.

Further readings on families and family carers:

UNECE Policy Briefs on Ageing

Measurement of different emerging forms of households and families.

Gender and Generations Programme

Recommendations on Ageing-related Statistics (Chapter on Intergenerational Solidarity)