This blog is an edited version of an article appearing in the International Longevity Centre’s Compendium on Older Women, published for International Women’s Day.
As women, we outlive men in nearly all parts of the world, outnumbering our male counterparts across the globe by 100 million. But though we live longer than men and are stronger in number, we are also likely to spend more years in poor health.
This is reflected in the gender profile of users of health and social care. Across OECD countries ¾ of long-term care users are women. Older women are therefore disproportionately affected by inadequacies of care and support.
Paradoxically, though, older women are also the main providers of care. Across OECD countries 2/3 of informal carers aged 50+ are female. In developing countries, in addition to informal care, a significant amount of the care older women provide is as a grandparent to children whose parents have migrated or have been killed by HIV/AIDS or conflict.
The challenges of care and caring for older women are exacerbated by economic and social inequalities which accumulate across the life-course. Historic inequalities in employment and incomplete contribution years for pensions due to caring for children, for example, mean older women are at greater risk of poverty than men.
There is a class dimension to be considered too, as poverty itself leads to worse health outcomes and greater risk of having to provide care. Illness, disability and caring can also intensify the deprivation that can cause them, increasing the likelihood of loneliness and isolation as well as financial strain.
Feminism and later life
Younger feminists might be forgiven for thinking that the relationship between older women and care relates to an older generation and will have shifted by the time of their own old age. But trends suggest this might be a mistake.
Firstly, there is much to address if our longer lives are to be healthier ones – we will need to challenge the accumulated inequality of gender, age and class.
In terms of caring, population ageing makes increased demand a near certainty. How gendered provision will be remains to be seen. Despite fears that increased participation of women in the labour market, changing family structures, reduced fertility rates and changing expectations will leave a dearth in support – note that many of these ‘challenges’ are the same phenomena many women would consider key advancements of the 20th Century – evidence suggests women are responding by simply adding care to their portfolio of daily tasks; reacting to need more than any other factor.
An intergenerational sisterhood
To move forward, feminists and the organisations championing gender equality must wake up to the growing numbers of older people in their constituency and make alliances to campaign on the issues affecting them.
Older women themselves must be at the centre of this activity. Later life all too readily leaves women feeling invisible and undervalued. Older women must challenge these trends and become the agents and beneficiaries of change.
I would suggest care is a good place to start. Despite care having been on the feminist agenda for years, the issue of it in later life has remained shrouded from our viewpoint, as millions struggle in quiet crisis. Yet nowhere are the compounded challenges of class, gender and age more evident and nowhere are older women more in need of voice.
Age UK has been campaigning to put pressure on the Government to bring about wide-ranging changes to social care. Find out more about Age UK’s Care in Crisis campaign