The care and support given to older people and dependent adults has been in the spotlight since the start of social distancing and public health measures. Pre-pandemic, the ageing population and growing costs of elder care in Hong Kong were critical issues, but COVID-19 has presented a renewed urgency, with demands on finite health care services and increasing costs to society, employers, families and individuals.
Older people are particularly vulnerable to the virus, especially those with pre-existing conditions. At the same time, many care homes, day centres and other services are limited, and medical treatments delayed or cancelled. All this leads to a significantly increased burden of unpaid care work, the majority of which is taken up by women, many of whom are juggling this role in addition to their job.
Informal caregivers face significant challenges which have been exacerbated under COVID-19 and women are particularly affected. Our joint research last year on working dementia caregivers showed women were more likely than men to be stressed in juggling multiple roles, have financial pressure, and not have adequate support networks. While this is only one example, there are likely similarities in the type of issues faced by those caring for elderly dependents with diverse needs.
Some governments have been taking the lead in supporting caregivers during COVID-19. Canada provides income support to those who have had to stop work due to caregiving responsibilities. Germany has doubled the amount of compensated leave that caregivers can take if there is an acute care situation. In Spain, employees with care responsibilities have the right to request reduced work hours from their employer.
Employers can also play a significant role in reducing the burden felt by employees with elderly dependents. Providing greater support through managing workloads and guaranteed sick leave for caregivers are two such policies, along with offering insurance options that cover elderly dependents. Longer term, employers, with the government and insurance industry, can explore innovative public-private schemes or a set of insurance products that would enable companies or individuals to have the option of income protection in the event the employee needs to move to part-time hours or stop work due to caregiving responsibilities.
The issue of eldercare and its impact on informal caregivers is one that won’t dissipate with the ebb of COVID-19. Hong Kong has the longest life expectancy in the world, with women outliving men by an average of six years. Women face financial pressure while caregiving for their elderly dependents - compounded by the gender pay gap, barriers to advancement in the workplace and deferring financial decisions to their spouse. These costs and challenges are generally experienced in a woman’s mid-life. Yet in later life female caregivers will be facing their own costs and challenges as they themselves age. Coupled together this is a disturbing recipe for financial vulnerability and poverty for women as they age – and one we must address.
This issue has been a continued focus for TWF through research and advocacy. Our 2019 joint research on eldercare showed the enormous projected costs of the eldercare burden on government, employers and individuals over the next 40 years, highlighting the need to adopt a holistic approach to be able to thrive as a city as the population ages and more individuals will be taking up caregiving. This includes sustainable action from government, business and employers to address the financial and social implications ahead.
The pandemic has upended many things that we take for granted and led us to reassess what we value. Let’s turn our increased appreciation for informal caregiving into actions that will support them for the long term.
Get in touch at Fiona.Nott@twfhk.org.