woman caressing her senior mother

“In the last twelve months both my parents’ health has declined and my mum seems to think that as the eldest daughter I should be helping with shopping, doctor visits, hospital appointments, etc.

“I feel torn as I really want to be there for my kids. I ended up so stressed last year I got quite sick. I lost 17kg. A counselor helped greatly but I can see it is going to be an ongoing problem that I find hard to juggle.”

A report released yesterday by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick, which aims to reform the value of unpaid caring in Australia – and start a national conversation about the issue – is crucial to those in the ‘sandwich generation’.


elizabeth-broderick“No woman should live in poverty because she chose to care during her lifetime,” says Elizabeth Broderick. Photo by Vanessa Hunter – The Australian.

Usually female, these multi-generational linchpins – like the one quoted above – juggle the complexities of being a partner, mother, daughter, worker, carer, all the while negotiating the confrontations of midlife with very little reciprocal care themselves.

They are the filling in the middle, spread thin and somewhat squished, gripping both slices with grim determination, and often trapped by the weight of it all.

“People who make the valuable contribution and personal sacrifices of caring for parents, in-laws, children, grandchildren and others in our community with disability, chronic illness or frailty due to old age are penalized by a system that does not recognise this invaluable personal and socio-economic contribution,” Commissioner Broderick said as she launched her Investing in Care report.

lady taking care of a grandfather in wheelchair

“The failure of our superannuation and taxation systems, alone, to recognise this contribution and provide a value for this unpaid work means that carers – mostly women – who have had long and repeated absences from paid employment, find they have negligible retirement savings and indeed, often retire in poverty.”

“No woman,” says Broderick, “should live in poverty in her retirement because she chose to care during her lifetime.”

According to the report, there are 5.5 million unpaid carers in Australia today, and 4.1 million of them are in paid work as well. In the 15-64 age group, 72 percent of carers are women.

McCrindle Research (2007) has attributed the rise in ‘sandwich generation’ carers to social trends such as delayed childbirth, children staying home longer, delayed aged care and greater life expectancy. In 2004, half of all Australians aged 19-29 were still living at home (I suspect most of them are at my house), while 92% of the elderly were receiving some type of care from their family. Mainly from the women.

When undertaking some research in this area for a book recently, I found, naturally enough, that these unpaid carers are literally worth their weight in gold.

They contribute more value to welfare services than government and non-government organisations combined. However, the sandwich generation is often buckling under the associated stress.

Around a third of all primary carers frequently lack energy, or feel depressed, while a significant minority endure frequent sleep interruptions, feelings of anger and resentment, or diagnosis of a stress-related illness (McCrindle, 2007).


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