The trap of the double-generation juggle | Women's Agenda

The trap of the double-generation juggle

Delaying children is now often a conscious decision by women who want to establish their career, find the right partner and gain financial independence. The median age of mothers for all births was 30.7 years in 2010 and this has remained fairly constant since 2007. In 2011, 12,800 Australian babies were born to women over 40, up from 7,100 ten years earlier.

In 1971, mothers were an average age of 25.4 years old. Women’s Lib gave women ‘family planning’ but there is a downside. Our age is more likely to be closer to that of our parents than our children’s. If you are 30 and starting a family, your parents will be in their late 50s or 60s. Wait for another ten years and your parents will be in their late 60s or 70s.

My grandparents were 50-something when I was a toddler and provided help to my mother by babysitting, having us over for the school holidays, or coming over to clean the house with a casserole in hand. For many of us, me included, our ageing parents are beginning to need our help with the cleaning, gardening and the grocery shopping.

With older people preferring to remain in their own homes rather than move into an aged care facility the demands for informal aged care has increased. Daughters are more likely to provide this informal care for their parents. In fact, 65% of primary carers for ageing parents were female non-spouses.

My friend Sarah has found that her mother’s mobility has rapidly deteriorated due to arthritis. Sarah takes her mother grocery shopping and to medical appointments, often with her two children aged four and one in the car for the ride. It’s a double-gen juggle.

As our newborns grow into toddlers and then get to school most women ramp up the work hours. One Assessment Officer in an inner Melbourne local council reported that while there is a lack of detailed data regarding the reason for requests for aged respite care the demands are increasing because care givers need to spend more time in paid employment. She added that older people are more reluctant to leave their home, even for a short break.

The double-gen juggle becomes more difficult when children get sick. We take carer’s leave. And if Mum or Dad get sick, we take carer’s leave. Or we take advantage of flexible working arrangements if we are fortunate to have access to them. Recently another friend Nadine had to drop everything to assist her 74-year-old father who was admitted to hospital with stomach pain. She has a four-year-old son and works three days a week. After the crisis was over, she had to pick up where she left off – finalising a proposal for a financial restructure at work. While the Australian Bureau of Statistics reports the access to leave entitlements and flexible working arrangements provides carers with increased options to balance their caring role with paid employment, the reality is different.

And when we get run down and sick, we take sick leave – needing someone to pick up the slack.

It is often hard for parents to justify time off work to care for children or to leave work on time to pick children up from formal care. Attending a school assembly or concert is often achieved by stealth. In May Labor MP Michelle Rowland was initially refused leave from Parliament to return home, in Sydney, to be with her sick daughter. This instance unfortunately reflects the prevalent workplace scepticism about the productivity of working mothers. The need to leave work to care for ageing parents is yet to reach the public radar.

There is also no doubt that jobs at senior management level are full-time, plus additional hours when required, so getting a career back on track may not be as simple as booking the children into before and after school care. A report titled “The future supply of informal care“, states that women may be increasingly less willing to forsake paid work in the future to provide care and that this could have a significant impact on the supply of informal carers. It is further assumed that this proportion of women will not be prepared to assume a caring role at all. Unless flexibility and leave arrangements provide actual relief we will reach crisis point. Better access to community-based supports will help to fill the void.

What can we do?

  1. Become familiar with the services offered to older people by local councils, community health centres, private domestic services and personal care providers so that our parents can have the assistance that they need to live in their own home. Organisations such as Linkages or your state based HACC (Home and Community Care) services are particularly helpful.
  2. Encourage male partners to access carer’s leave and request flexible working arrangements so that they can help.
  3. Be honest with your employer about your need for flexibility and carer’s leave. Chances are you are not the only one with family responsibilities.

Raising awareness is the first step in garnering support at work and ultimately creating a cultural shift towards acceptance of the need to care for ageing parents. The upside of this is that we will benefit from a more positive approach to ageing when we are the ones in need.

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