Speaking of Women's Rights: Families: You Can’t Live with ’Em, Can’t Live Without ’Em?

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Families: You Can’t Live with ’Em, Can’t Live Without ’Em?

Ah, the holidays. It’s that time of year when family comes into focus – for some, a good thing, for others, perhaps not so much. But for many, the burdens – and benefits – of family are year-round when it comes to family caregiving.

For me, last week was one of those when I said, “Thank goodness for mom.” When my husband and I both found our work travel schedules required us to be out of town simultaneously, it was my mom who got the call to come help with the kids. Her response to our thanks? “It’s just what Korean grandmas do.”

OK, maybe it is what they used to do. But with changes in our society – such as people working longer before retiring, more women in the workforce – let’s face it: our society is facing a caregiving crisis. According to a new report, in the past year, an estimated 65.7 million people in the U.S. served as unpaid family caregivers to an adult or a child.

Predictably, the economic downturn has only made things worse (according to this report), with more caregivers having moved in with their care recipients. And financially, even though 73% of caregivers were employed at some point while they were caregiving (64% in the last 12 months), many report feeling less comfortable taking time off from work to care for their friends or family. Four in ten have experienced a cut in their pay or work hours, and 30% have either had to work more hours or get an additional job.

What’s often missing in the public discourse about the need for “family-friendly” workplaces is that increasingly, we really aren’t just talking about mothers and child care needs. This IS a women's issue - but it isn't JUST a women's issue.

Here are the facts: only 14% of caregivers are caring for their own children. This means that many caregivers are caring for people other than their own children – whether it be a parent (35%), another relative (86%), or even a friend. Kinship caregivers – relatives other than parents who provide care for children – are also a large and growing group. (Some great resources about, and for, kinship caregivers are here and here.)

To be sure, the majority (66%) of caregivers still are female. This means that whatever policies exist – or don’t – to support caregivers have more impact on women. And, more women’s work lives are impacted either in fact, because of conflicts between their work and family caregiving responsibilities, or because of stereotypes about their ability and commitment to perform a job.

What are some of the policies that could help caregivers? Job-protected leave, and, even better, paid time off to care for sick family members. Enforcement of anti-discrimination laws to ensure that caregivers are not treated adversely by employers because of their caregiving responsibilities. Tax credits for caregivers. Voucher programs through which caregivers could receive compensation for at least some of their caregiving time.

So, what am I asking Santa for this year? That ALL family caregivers could enjoy a few more benefits, and fewer of the burdens, of caregiving.