According to Faye Porter, National Coordinator for the Care Renewal Project, “caregiving can place women at a significant disadvantage exacerbating poverty, health issues, social isolation and lack of participation in civil society or, lack of voice.” Women experience pay inequity and inferior workforce participation, live longer than men and have historically been assigned roles constrained by gender, and in the case of caregiving, take on a significantly heavier burden. According to Porter, this may mean they face “double jeopardy”, “the term denotes both family members and friends; the caregiver, whether legally related or not, is considered to be part of the family.” Many of these caregivers are seniors helping other seniors, and for women, much of what they do isolates them in their home” adds Porter.
The numbers support this theory: of the estimated 5 million Canadians who have undertaken family caregiving, 77% are women and 51% are women aged 45 and older. It follows that there are currently 3.85 million female informal caregivers in Canada, 1.96 million of whom are 45+. Already, studies of poverty among older women identify caregiving responsibilities as a factor which exacerbates the financial insecurity they already face because of lower work-life income, drop-out periods for child rearing and now, elder care.
Poverty is often cyclical. Inequities during working life will lead to higher rates of poverty and reliance on retirement income supports as they age: these inequalities need to be addressed. One of the biggest obstacles older women confront is that the current macro-economic support system is heavily skewed towards traditional work arrangements from which women have often been left out.
Women have been, and continue to be, more involved than men in low-paying, informal or part-time work: 22% of women are in low-paid jobs compared to 12% of their male counterparts, while 30% of employed women are working part time compared to 10% of employed men. Individuals involved in non-standard work arrangements lack the collective bargaining power that full-time workers often have. For these employees, the results are inferior working conditions, benefits and pension plans. In non-standard arrangements, employers often treat workers as contractors so as to avoid having to contribute their share of the worker’s CPP contribution.
Women are also more affected by divorce and single parenthood. In 1997, 5.4% of attached women 65 and older had incomes below the Low Income Cut Off (LICO) versus a staggering 49.1% of unattached women 65 and over. Increasing rates of separation/divorce have also contributed to women’s economic insecurity. Social patterns among newer immigrant groups in Canada indicate greater barriers to access, as well as the possibility of more traditional gender roles. It is reasonable to expect that women in ethnic communities will be even more disproportionately represented in caregiving roles than women in the general population. At the lower income levels, which disproportionately include newer immigrants especially racialized groups, the impact on women is even greater.
“Family caregivers across the world are ‘pillars’ of the community, and require our support” says Porter. The fact that caregiving responsibilities disproportionately fall on a group of people who are already socio-economically disadvantaged cannot bode well for either the caregivers or the care recipients.