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Caring for carers: Recognizing the rights and contributions of older women
Photo: UN Women/Piyavit Thongsa-Ard
Photo: UN Women/Piyavit Thongsa-Ard

The demographic shift towards an ageing global population is already increasing the demand for care and support. Today, the world has 807.8 million people aged 65 and older, a six-fold increase since 1950. By 2050, 55% of the 2 billion older people will be female, with 59% aged 80+, primarily residing in lower- and middle-income countries. 

This 29 October 2023, the world will celebrate the first International Day of Care and Support, following a resolution adopted by the United Nations General Assembly. It aims to spotlight the vital role of care and support in promoting gender equality and the sustainability of societies and economies. To achieve this, care and support systems need to address the intersections of gender, age and disability.

Since women outlive men by an average of 5 years, they constitute a larger share of the older population. They also spend more of their lives in ill health or with a disability (rates for women and men aged 50+ can reach 40.1% to 23.8%, respectively). This contributes to older women being overrepresented among those requiring care and support. For instance, in the European Union, at age 65+, 33% of women need care compared to 19% of men.

Older women provide care and support 

Globally, older women dedicate an average of 4.3 hours per day to unpaid care and domestic work. And survey data for 47 countries confirm that older women aged 65+ spend, on average, nearly twice as much time performing such work as men. In countries such as Belgium, Croatia, Greece, Italy, Luxembourg, Portugal and Switzerland, for example, between 30 and 37% of grandmothers and 24–31% of grandfathers care for grandchildren on a weekly basis. This vital contribution, often overlooked, establishes them as a hidden yet essential cornerstone of national childcare arrangements. 

While older women in high-income countries may have the flexibility to transition into spending more time on unpaid childcare or providing other forms of support as they retire from paid work, women in low- and middle-income countries, where pension coverage is limited and gender disparities are significant, often do not have this choice. In 2021, only 10.8% of older women in high-income countries were in the labour force, compared 31.8% in low-income countries. Consequently, older women in the latter countries frequently endure long, strenuous working hours to support themselves and their families, significantly impacting their physical and emotional well-being. 


Labour force participation by income grouping and sex, 2021

But their own care and support needs are often sidelined 

Due to a lifetime of discrimination, women end up with fewer savings and assets, making it challenging to maintain an adequate standard of living in old age. Globally, women enjoy universal access to pensions in only 56 out of 116 countries with available data. In 47 countries, women’s pension coverage is not universal and lags behind men’s. Consider Ghana, where merely 7.2% of older women receive a pension compared to 21.2% of men. Similarly, in the Philippines, the numbers are 12% for older women and 23.3% for men. Additionally, during the COVID-19 pandemic, across 20 of 36 countries, older women were less likely than older men to receive essential cash support.


Cash relief to older persons, by country and sex

Even where women enjoy access to social protection, benefits are often low and insufficient to cover living expenses, let alone rising care and support costs – a problem that is particularly acute when inflationary pressure erodes purchasing power over time. A study by HelpAge International on the impact of the food, fuel and financial crisis across 10 countries revealed negative coping strategies adopted by older people, including reduced quality and quantity of food consumed, with particularly adverse effects among older women.

Informal support systems are increasingly stretched

In the absence of adequate formal support, many older people rely on informal family support systems during crises. Yet, even in these informal networks, older women often find themselves at a disadvantage. Data from UN Women’s rapid gender assessments during COVID-19 reveal a higher proportion of older women (57%) reporting increased time spent on care and domestic work due to the pandemic compared to older men (47%). At the same time, older women (>60 years) were 37% less likely than older men and 41% less likely than younger women (<60 years) to report relying on other family members and/or domestic workers for this work. This may partly reflect differences in living arrangements, as older women are twice as likely to live alone (15.8%) compared to older men (7.7%). 


The path forward

On this inaugural International Day of Care and Support it is imperative that the significant contributions older women make and the multiple disadvantages they face are acknowledged and addressed. Policies in support of gender-responsive, disability-inclusive and age-sensitive care and support systems must: recognize their rights and contributions and increase access to pensions; reduce their paid and unpaid workloads, including through public infrastructure; redistribute care responsibilities across genders and generations through the progressive and collective financing of universal health coverage and access to quality services; and ensure the representation of older women, including those with disabilities, in policy discussions and decision-making about care and support. Last but not least, more and better data that is disaggregated by sex, age and other characteristics will be essential to ensure that policies are informed by a sound understanding of intersecting inequalities.

Written By:
Silke Staab
Silke Staab

Silke Staab is a research specialist at UN Women. She has published widely on gender, care and social policy and co-authored several of the organization’s flagship reports. Before joining UN Women, Silke earned her PhD from the University of Manchester and worked as researcher for different UN agencies and non-governmental organizations, including the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) and the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC).  

Georgina Veitch
Georgina Veitch

Georgina Veitch is Global Gender Policy Adviser at HelpAge International. She leads HelpAge’s gender and ageing advocacy and the process of mainstreaming gender equality across the organisation’s work. Georgina has worked in the women’s rights, development and humanitarian sectors for over 10 years for the most part in lower- and middle-income countries. She has also worked in the UK, managing specialist shelters for women escaping domestic violence and sexual exploitation. Georgina is a strong advocate for applying a life-course perspective and an intersectional approach to the gender agenda.

Ramya Emandi
Ramya Emandi

Ramya is a statistics consultant with the Women Count programme at UN Women. She is an applied econometrics policy researcher in a constant pursuit of interdisciplinary and pluralistic approaches to policy frameworks, exploring non-traditional data sources and methods. Over the past 10 years she has worked on a variety of macro-development areas within various international organizations, the Indian public sector and the UN.

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