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The Role of Unpaid Family Carers in An Ageing Population

Published: 17 October 2023
Updated: 26 February 2024
A woman brushing her mother's hair.

Did you know that there are now more people over the age of 65 in the world than children under 5? And by 2050, the number of people over 80 is set to triple, from 143 million in 2019 to 426 million in 2050.

This current decade (2021 – 2030) is the United Nations Decade of Healthy Ageing and our founder Anil Patil has been invited to speak at various events about the critical role that unpaid carers play in ensuring healthy ageing, the impact caring has on people, and the support they need.  

There is a crisis in care due to the increase in life expectancy, combined with changing population structures. For example, smaller family sizes and the movement away from family living are leaving unpaid carers in the developing world bearing the brunt of it.

“Investing in long-term care helps older people with a significant loss of capacity to maintain lives of dignity and continued personal growth, but it can also protect families from impoverishment, allow women to remain in the workforce and foster social cohesion through the sharing of risk across a community. Much of the investment in infrastructure or policy to foster Healthy Ageing will also have direct benefits for other sections of the population.”

- The World Health Organisation

Who Are Unpaid Family Carers?

An unpaid carer is an individual of any age who cares for or nurses a relative, friend or partner who requires help due to physical or mental ill health, disability, old age, frailty, substance misuse, etc.

In the UK, around 5.7million people are providing unpaid care. That’s around 9% of the UK population. This kind of data does not exist in many countries around the world, but if we were to use this figure as a guide, then we could expect there to be 126 million carers in India, 15.25 million in Bangladesh and 2.7 million in Nepal.

With people living longer, the number of unpaid carers is only going to increase.

Looking ahead, the expectation is that fewer family members will be available to take on caregiving responsibilities. The ratio of potential family caregivers to those over 80 is set to decrease from 7:1 today to 3:1 by 2050, putting additional pressure on those who do end up providing care.

Issues Facing Unpaid Family Carers

Unpaid carers are particularly hard hit in several different ways as a result of their caring role. These include loss of employment, reduction in earnings, loss of education (in the case of children and young people), poor health, reduction in social contacts and reduction in opportunities to participate in family and socio-cultural activities.

In the low- and middle-income countries where Carers Worldwide works, unpaid carers are often invisible, isolated and vulnerable. 

Our research in India, Nepal and Bangladesh has found that:

  • 48% of family carers worry about their own health
  • 79% of family carers suffer from anxiety or depression
  • 92% of family carers worry about money
  • 84% of family carers are female 

These carers have no respite and are often socially excluded and isolated.

Importance of Unpaid Family Carers

Carers are of vital importance in ensuring healthy, supported ageing and to society in general. For healthcare systems, carers are the unpaid army keeping everything going. For service providers, they are the potential catalysts to therapy success. For doctors, they are the experts-by-experience turning treatment plans into reality. And to patients, they are indispensable, making each day possible.

They are also of importance to national economies. Recent research has shown that the value of unpaid care in England and Wales is now estimated to be £162 billion, exceeding that of the entire NHS budget in England.

The Challenges of Caring for the Elderly

In a 2019 report, HelpAge India found that 35% of carers ‘never’ felt happy looking after the elderly and 29% of carers felt the ‘burden of caring for an elder’ was Moderate to Severe, while 15% felt it was Severe.

Additionally, 78% of carers felt that no policy or measures were adopted by their employers to help them ease the burden of caregiving for their elderly relatives.

So What Should We Do About It?

Society needs to recognise the vital role that unpaid carers play and change practises to ensure they are always considered. For example, the health of the carer should be considered as well as that of the patient; medical degrees should offer modules on carers and caring; research on the impact of caring should be carried out and opportunities for respite/short breaks should be encouraged.

Caring will eventually affect everyone so support for carers needs to become mandatory, not optional.

If you’d like to find out more about our work supporting unpaid family carers in low- and middle-income countries, then please take the time to look at our project pages for India, Nepal and Bangladesh. And if you’d like to support what we do, please consider making a donation.