Older women and care: are they invisible to the sisterhood?

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. photographer: Claudia JankeAcross 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.

Compounded challenges

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

Read ‘Older women and care: are they invisible to the sisterhood?’ the full article

Author: Michelle Mitchell

Charity Director, Age UK

5 thoughts on “Older women and care: are they invisible to the sisterhood?”

  1. Can’t understand why Age UK are endorsing the ‘Liverpool Care Pathway’ if they care at all about healthcare rights…its an excuse for not giving older women or men treatment, and was designed to save the Government having to provide social care ….at least they let unwanted dogs free in a field rather than taking them to the vet and having them put down…

    1. HI Mark

      While we understand that people feel strongly about the LCP, we’ve already explained previously our stance to you in more than one place.


  2. Taking care of the older woman, especially the ones who are alone and suffering is a challenge because when there is no body from the family to look after them, an effective social care net must exist, which is humane and effective, to give them succor in their twilight years.

  3. After many years of caring for my husband with Alzheimer’s he is now being cared for in a home and I am grateful,but my health has deteriorated over the years and now I am at home alone

  4. Sadly on 24 the August after spending 4 days in St Mary’s nursing home my mums blood pressure and Sats crashed so low that her heart stopped in the ambulance. Just the day prior I had contacted the home to make serious representations about he care, in particular her hydration management, diabetes care and the fact they hadn’t dressed her legs (sores) since she was admitted. I also contacted the NHS to share my concerns. They all assured me they would provide good care for her and ensure she was safe. Less than 24 hours later she died. We’re now finding out alarming things, her hydration was ignored, she become so severely dehydrated her BP dropped to 58 over 36, yet the home still failed to call an ambulance. Since we have discovered a catalogue of neglect issues around her care. She was simply treated as an old person expected to die. No respect and no protection of her dignity. There is now an investigation underway. We are having to fight so hard to be heard and taken seriously. Interim results have now shown that had my mum been cared for properly she would have received timely life saving treatment in hospital but the nursing home ignored the vital warning signs and failed to adequately monitor her obs… They simply say ‘we’re not a hospital’. Sadly they also attempted to cover up that she had vomited bile during he night by removing her clothes and putting her in a gown prior to the ambulance attending, this was witnessed by an attending doctor. I want this home closed before they kill someone else…

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