Some Surprising Truths About Caregivers

Although the “sandwich generation” is usually believed to include many caregivers, in fact they make up a very small part of the caregiving population, according to a new study.

The research, published in Population and Development Review, is believed to be the first to break down unpaid caregiving in the United States by age and gender of caregivers and those they care for.

Nearly one third of the U.S. population are informal caregivers, the study found. Collectively, they provide about 1.2 billion hours of unpaid work weekly, the equivalent of about 30.5 million full-time care aides. But the sandwich generation comprises just 3 percent of the population, much less than researchers anticipated.

The investigators were also surprised to find that elderly people were frequently being cared for by spouses, not adult children. About 20 percent of caregiving time spent on people 80 years or older comes from people of the same age, they found.

“The extent to which spousal care is prevalent at old ages, 70 and 80 years old, was surprising to us,” said lead author Emilio Zagheni, a University of Washington assistant professor of sociology. “We expected to see more caregiving by adult children of their parents.”

According to a news release from the university, Zagheni said that older men provided slightly more spousal care than women. That might be explained by men dying earlier, possibly before they need much care, and women living longer but being in poor health at older ages.

Overall, though, women have the bulk of the caregiving burden in most situations. They provide 137 minutes of unpaid caregiving a day on average, compared with men’s 110 minutes, according to the news release. Among the sandwich generation, the numbers increase to 181 and 157, respectively.

But much less caregiving time was spent on elderly people compared with young children. Across the various age groups, the researchers said, elderly people received caregiving typically no more than 1.5 hours daily, on average, compared with six hours for young children.

Zagheni said that the small number of sandwich generation caregivers, Zagheni said, could reflect the fact that while Americans are living longer, people are also having children later, so the two trends might counterbalance each other.

“That could be one reason,” he said. “Or it could be that health overall is improving, so people at older ages don’t need as much help.”

To develop their analyses, Zagheni and co-author Denys Dukhovnov, a research associate at CUNY Institute for Demographic Research in New York, looked at three years of data (2011, 2012 and 2013) from the American Time Use Survey, which asks respondents how much time they spent the previous day on various activities.

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