Carer-friendly policies needed to help ‘sandwich generation’

Britain’s cost-of-living crisis is fast becoming a key battleground area on which the next general election will be fought. As parties gear up for 2015, Labour has promised to alleviate the strain on hard-working parents with an increase in state-funded childcare. Hard on its heels, the coalition also proposes to extend the hours of free childcare to parents with two-year-olds.

While affordable childcare has long been recognised as key to our economic infrastructure, there’s a fast-growing group for whom no such election pledges have been aimed: the sandwich generation – those who carry the dual responsibility of caring for young children alongside elderly or disabled relatives.

According to a 2012 YouGov poll there are an estimated 2.4 million sandwich carers in the UK and the number is steadily rising. People are living longer and more women are having children later in life while pursuing careers. Rising tuition fees and rising house prices are also keeping children at home for longer. Charity Carers UK say around a fifth of 45 to 60-year-olds are actively supporting parents while their children are still at home. For many, juggling these care-giving roles is putting both financial and personal strain on the family. And it is predominantly women who are more likely to bear the brunt.

“Child-care is seen as fundamental to business and the economy, but if you move up the age spectrum, provision is about 15 years behind,” says Emily Holzhausen, director of policy for Carers UK. “For sandwich carers, poor quality, uncoordinated care hoovers up time and energy and the labour market loses valuable people.”

While multi-generational, multi-responsibility care-giving can be rewarding, and many families want to care for loved ones, the downsides are all too evident. Women are more likely to give up work in order to cope, and more likely to suffer anxiety and depression as they give their lives over to caring. Carers UK’s own research showed women are four times more likely to care for more than 50 hours a week than men and more likely to reach breaking point.

Nobody knows this better than Catriona McRoberts who lives in East Kilbride and looks after three children alongside her 72-year-old mother. Her youngest son Kieran is autistic and her mother, who lives in nearby sheltered accommodation, now suffers with vascular dementia, a disease caused by problems with blood supply to the brain.

“I don’t sleep properly because I’m up with Kieran most nights and first thing in the morning I check my mum is okay. She depends on me to live and if she’s unwell I have to pop in several times a day as well as care for three children who are aged 12, six, and five and who go to three separate schools. I yearn for a day when I can just clean the house or pay bills,” said the 42-year-old, who adds that holidays are “out of the question”.

While Catriona’s husband works as a self–employed financial adviser, she has given up her job with Strathclyde Police to care full-time. “I went part-time when I had kids but when I began caring for my mum I didn’t want to be the person who brings their private stresses into work. In the end I gave up work completely because it didn’t offer the flexibility I needed. I feel guilty because the time spent with my mother is time away from my son and vice versa. The worst thing is that I know my situation is not unique. As a society we just don’t support carers,” she says.

There are different permutations of Catriona’s story nationwide but many dual carers, who include a swelling number of working grandparents, say simple things such as help with domestic chores would alleviate some of the strain. However, the need for continuity of quality care remains a predominant frustration. Catriona, for example, has to deal with two different social workers – one for her mother and one for her son − and sees a multitude of NHS staff. Co-ordinating different appointments and constantly having to repeat her back-story to new workers is draining, she admits.

Dual carers will often find themselves struggling financially too. Having been forced to give up work, they are entitled to one carer’s allowance per family (currently £59.75 per week) regardless of the number of dependents with substantial caring needs.

In a recent report, the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR) looked to other European countries for more carer-friendly policies. In Germany, for example, one income-smoothing scheme called Familienpflegezeit (family caring time) means eligible employees can reduce their working time to a minimum of 15 hours for up to two years to care for a loved one. On return to work they continue on reduced pay to pay back that time but retain their pension entitlements throughout. According to Emily Holzhausen only a handful of companies, such as British Gas and Sainsbury’s, are starting to recognise that carers have unique needs but the majority of employers lag far behind.

The IPPR report has attracted some interest from the opposition and the organisation is hopeful that the Coalition and employers will also take notice. Translating that into workable policy and practice, however, means there’s a long way to go. “The issue of care is slowly chipping away and entering the public debate in a different way” says IPPR associate director for families and work, Dalia Ben-Galim. For women like Catriona McRoberts that couldn’t come soon enough.

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