Guest blog: Dementia is a women’s issue

This week we have a guest blog from Sam Smethers, Chief Executive of the Fawcett Society, on women and dementia. 

Dementia is one of those illnesses that we don’t really like to talk about do we?  It’s associated with ageing and while we know that we have an ageing society all the images around us are rather in denial preferring to promote youthful beauty.  But it’s also a gender issue because women are more likely than men to be affected.

That is why I am pleased to be speaking at Age UK’s For Later Life conference on this issue in November.  In fact I was shocked to learn when researching the subject that dementia is now the biggest cause of death for women in the UK.  Women over 60 are twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease than breast cancer. So it would seem reasonable to expect that research in this area would be focussing more heavily on women.  But this is not so.

Lack of research on women and dementia 

In a blog written by Gina Dutton for Fawcett, she points out that only a fraction of international research papers in this field relate directly to women and dementia.  When it comes to looking for a cure for Alzheimer’s, women are not being retained in the research field either. A study which followed the careers of PhD graduates found that in 2009 70% of women continued to be employed in academia compared to 88% of men. By 2012, only 54% of women remained in academia compared to 81% of men.

So what is going on?  We are seeing gender blind policy making and service development which in practice means it is designed by and for men. Just as in the world of work, that becomes the default model.  This will almost certainly mean that women are not getting the care they need.  And this is despite the fact that we have a public sector equality duty in place, so service providers should be thinking about gender and diversity in terms of service design and delivery.

When we consider carers, both paid and unpaid, this lack of focus on women becomes even more difficult to justify.  Between 60 and 70% of all unpaid dementia carers are women.  19% of women who care for someone with dementia have had to give up their job.

80% of the paid care workforce is female.  Many are working on or below the living wage, on zero hours contracts or not paid for their travel time or refunded the cost of petrol for their cars as they travel between clients.  It speaks volumes to me that we treat our care workforce so badly because we value our older people so poorly.

Social care reform 

Fawcett has welcomed the Chancellor’s commitment to introducing the National Living Wage. Resolution Foundation research shows 61% of the beneficiaries will be women, many of whom are in the care sector. But let’s be clear this is only because they are so poorly paid in the first place.  Many in the care sector have been less enthusiastic, expressing alarm that they simply cannot afford to pay it.

However this reveals two things. Firstly, they do not make the connection between what they pay their staff and the quality of the service they provide. Secondly, and more fundamentally, we are building our social care infrastructure on extremely flimsy foundations – a model that requires poverty pay to be the norm.

We have to change that model.  Social care reform has been rather kicked into the long grass but the rise in the number of people with dementia and our ageing population mean that the need for reform will come back to haunt this government and any future government.

Launch of new Care Commission

This is why Fawcett is pleased to be chairing a new Care Commission on the subject, focussing on valuing informal and paid care.  We have to make sure that  women as service users and service providers are at the heart of it.  As a minimum, let’s care for them well, support informal family carers and pay our workforce fairly in the process.

Age UK’s annual For Later Life conference is taking place on Wednesday 18 November at BMA House in London. You can find out more about the conference on the Age UK website. 


Author: Age UK

Age UK is dedicated to helping everyone make the most of later life. In the UK we help more than 7 million older people each year by providing advice, combating loneliness and enabling independence. Locally, we work as part of a network of independent charities which includes Age UK, Age Cymru, Age NI and Age Scotland and over 150 local Age UK partners in England and Wales.

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