Latin America and the Caribbean is the fastest-aging region in the world. In three decades, one in four people will be over 60 years old. This irreversible trend will disproportionately affect women. Why? The existing supply of formal long-term care services is insufficient to meet the demand; therefore, the vast majority of people receive care from the women in their family informally.
Such is Delia’s case, from Tacuarembo, Uruguay, who, after 35 years living in Montevideo, left her job and her life in the capital and returned to her parents’ town to take care of them. Taking on all the household chores, in addition to the full-time care of her parents, took its toll. Delia began to suffer from spinal and waist problems that limited her mobility. Additionally, as she did not have time to take on a formal paid job, her financial autonomy and the household economy were seriously affected.
Situations like Delia’s are perhaps the main barrier to accessing the labor market for women. The figures reflect this: in the region, the percentage of women with informal and part-time jobs is significantly higher than men. In some countries, informality reaches very high levels. For example, in Bolivia, Guatemala, and Peru, 83% of women have informal jobs, without social security coverage or labor protection.
Public sector support
Uruguay is the first country in the region with a national system of support services for people in functional dependence situations. The National Integrated Care System (SNIC) began to operate in 2015. The SNIC is not limited to providing care services for dependent older adults but also children and people with disabilities. The care services offered by the system for the elderly include personal assistants at home, telecare for those with moderate or mild dependence, and free access to services in day centers.
Delia’s life took another turn when she went to the Uruguayan Health System for help. There, she was assigned the support of Sandra and Virginia, two personal assistants, who work four hours a day caring for her parents. Currently, she has the peace of mind of knowing that her parents are well-tended and the time to invest in her care, her health, and her endeavors.
However, can we replicate her story for the millions of women in the region who must put their lives aside to become unpaid caregivers? What is the current situation, and what can we do to ease women’s burden in Latin America and the Caribbean?
Aging and gender
The ability of families to take care of their dependent relatives is diminishing considerably. Families are getting smaller and smaller. And women, who have notably assumed this role, are migrating to the labor market with less time to exercise that care.
Whether or not they work for pay outside the home, women are the ones who take on a greater proportion of the task of caring for their dependent relatives. For example, in Chile, 70% of caregivers are women, which rises to 80% in Costa Rica and 85% in Colombia.
While women continue to be the primary providers of care within families, it is urgent to develop care service offers that consider the well-being and safety of people with dependency and, at the same time, the well-being of caregivers. These are not conflicting goals. On the contrary, they must be two sides to the same coin.
Dependency care is a gender issue for several reasons:
- Eight out of ten citizens in Latin America are women.
- As in Delia’s case, the creation of support services for care at home frees time for family caregivers, facilitating formal employment opportunities that mainly benefit women.
- The need for care services is higher in women than in men.
Recognition of the importance of informal care and the development of home care support with a clear gender focus must be present in any social protection program.
In the Age with Care publication, we provide clear guidelines on six recommendations for countries to begin this journey. Here the word “begin” is of particular importance. Taking the first step is an urgent requirement. Governments can start with a small-scale system, then gradually expand it. Uruguay is an example of this, and Delia’s story is an opportunity for everyone to reflect. In our case, it resonates very closely, as women who have experienced the illnesses of parents and relatives who have needed our care. For others, it is perhaps an opportunity to contemplate how they will receive care when they need it. For agents of change, both in the public and private sectors, it is a unique opportunity to initiate this necessary social change for the region’s future.