New Study Reveals the Hidden Struggles of Unpaid Caregivers

Family caregivers face immense challenges, juggling the emotional and physical demands of providing long-term care for loved ones with their own lives. A recent study sheds light on these burdens, revealing the significant toll that unpaid caregiving takes on family members' well-being and finances.

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New Study Reveals the Hidden Struggles of Unpaid Caregivers
9 Min Read February 11th, 2024

At first glance, caregiving appears to be a noble and admirable undertaking. Yet, as you delve deeper, you begin to see the immense demands it places on those who shoulder this responsibility daily. It's not just the physical effort that's taxing, but the mental, emotional, and sometimes even spiritual toll it takes can deeply affect caregivers, often going unnoticed by the wider community.

Carers Australia, an organization advocating for the country's unpaid caregivers, has found that the effort of Australia's 2.65 million unpaid caregivers is worth nearly $78 billion in paid services annually. This fact highlights just how crucial caregiving has become to Australia's health system. 

CareSide provides long-term care services throughout Australia. They conducted a study to explore the prevalence of caregiver burnout, how caregivers feel about their work, and what support could look like for them. Their research sheds light on the reality of unpaid caregiving, hoping to cultivate a broader appreciation for caregivers' sacrifices and the essential services they provide.

The research reflects caregivers in Australia, but one can assume they reflect caregivers worldwide. The findings speak volumes: 94% of caregivers reported feeling physically or mentally exhausted by their caregiving duties. A staggering 92% often put their needs aside, while only 18% find time for hobbies and interests. For many, caregiving extends beyond a full-time job, with 41% dedicating 60 hours or more each week to caregiving tasks.

Interestingly, only 21% have utilized in-home respite care for a much-needed break from their responsibilities. The survey also highlighted significant gender disparities, with 91% of caregivers being women, emphasizing the gendered nature of caregiving roles. 

Unpaid caregiving gender breakdown.

The research confirmed the expectation of a female majority among caregivers. Still, the significant gender gap calls for a deeper conversation. Careside says that despite gradual progress toward gender equality in the workplace, the advancement is tempered by the ongoing trend of women shouldering the majority of domestic duties.

Caregivers Can Be Older

The survey also highlighted age as a notable factor. A mere 6% of participants were under 44 years old, with the majority, 75%, being 55 years or older and 40% aged 65 and above. This demographic distribution aligns with the finding that 40% of respondents are providing care for their spouse or partner. Additionally, 38% care for a parent or parent-in-law, while 21% support an adult child, underscoring the diverse caregiving roles that older adults assume.

Unpaid caregiving care recipients.

The research shows that a significant number of caregivers were caring for spouses or partners dealing with chronic illnesses. This observation aligns with statistics from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, which notes that 80% of Australians over 65 have at least one chronic condition, with 28% living with three or more.

While Australians are enjoying longer lifespans than previous generations, this increase often comes with the challenge of serious, chronic diseases that require assistance. Unpaid caregivers are providing essential care at rates that raise concerns about sustainability, according to CareSide. 

Additionally, the evidence points to the fact that many of these caregivers are also contending with their own health issues, adding another layer to their already demanding roles.

Caregivers are Burnt Out

The survey revealed a striking statistic: 94% of caregivers in Australia either agreed or strongly agreed that they often feel physically or mentally exhausted from their caregiving duties, highlighting a widespread issue of caregiver burnout.

Unpaid caregiving burnout.

Many respondents chose to anonymously express in writing their struggles with burnout. Those who have been a caregiver in the past or are now providing care can relate to some of the feelings of those in this research.

A cartoon of a person.

The reality that caregiving often surpasses the demands of a full-time job is reflected in the fact that over 40% of those surveyed are dedicating 60 or more hours weekly to unpaid caregiving, with an additional 13% exceeding the standard 40-hour workweek. Far from being a part-time or temporary role, caregiving demands extensive, ongoing commitment. 

Unpaid caregiving average hours.

Caregiving is ‘Long-Term’

Indeed, 51% of survey participants have been in their caregiving roles for over five years, embodying a relentless daily routine that spans years. In Australia, the sheer magnitude of this commitment makes burnout not just a potential risk but an almost inevitable outcome for many caregivers, considering the constant, intense nature of their work.

The research shows that caregiving often extends beyond a part-time obligation and is rarely a brief endeavor. A significant portion of unpaid caregivers, including 51% of those surveyed, commit to providing care for extended periods, with many dedicating over five years to their caregiving roles.

A graph with blue and black text.

Self-Care Sacrificed in the World of Unpaid Caregiving

Unpaid caregivers pour immense time and effort into caring for others, often at the cost of their own health, happiness, and, in some cases, their financial stability. According to the research, a staggering 92% of participants acknowledged that their personal needs are frequently overlooked due to the demands of their caregiving duties.

Unpaid caregivers often neglect their own needs.

Neglecting personal needs isn't so much a choice for unpaid caregivers as it is a compulsion. Swamped with caregiving responsibilities, they find little time for self-care or other pursuits. The survey highlighted that over 60% of respondents lack the time to engage in hobbies or interests, indicating how caregiving obligations overshadow personal fulfillment.

Unpaid caregivers often have less time for hobbies.

Even with more hours in the day, CareSide says that many caregivers might still forgo these activities, as losing interest in once-loved hobbies is a common sign of stress and burnout. Accompanying this loss of interest are fatigue and sleep disturbances, either too much or too little sleep, which further exacerbate poor self-care routines.

Caregiver stress manifests in various ways, including anxiety, depression, feelings of isolation, irritability, strained relationships, and even physical symptoms like headaches and unexplained weight changes. Substance misuse and health issues can also emerge as part of this complex web of caregiver burnout symptoms. Despite the diverse experiences of caregivers, a common thread of frustration about the loss of personal time runs through many of their stories. Indeed, 55% of those surveyed expressed resentment towards the significant personal sacrifices made, underscoring the profound impact of their caregiving role on their own lives.

Unpaid caregiving resentment.

Financial Strain Amid Lost Hobbies and Career Opportunities

While busy lifestyles may lead many to sideline hobbies and personal interests, this trend hits harder for unpaid caregivers, who must balance the need to earn an income with their caregiving responsibilities. Many caregivers contend with a more intricate care-work-life dynamic, unlike the typical work-life balance challenges. This complex balancing act often forces them to sacrifice both hobbies and fundamental career goals, from maintaining steady employment to pursuing advancements in their fields.

As a result, an increasing number of unpaid caregivers find themselves in financial difficulty, struggling to manage the dual demands of providing care and securing a stable income.

A blue background with white text.

The 2023 annual survey by Carers Australia disclosed that caregivers are 1.6 times more likely to face significant financial stress than other Australians, highlighting the economic challenges unique to their situation.

Respite Care: The Underused Lifeline for Unpaid Caregivers

Unpaid caregivers, often burdened with continuous long-term care responsibilities, can access essential resources designed to offer support. Among these, respite care stands out as a critical yet underutilized option. 

Intended to provide primary caregivers with a temporary break, respite care allows them to focus on personal well-being and achieve a more sustainable balance between caregiving and self-care.

Despite its intended purpose, the reality is that many caregivers postpone taking necessary breaks until personal health crises force them to step back. Respite care offers flexibility, available in the care recipient's home, residential facilities, or community centers, and can range from a few hours a week to extended periods to accommodate vacations.

Unpaid caregiving respite.

Many adult day care centers, assisted living facilities, and in-home care agencies can offer respite services in the United States. All types of long-term care, including respite care, can be found using the LTC NEWS Caregiver Directory - Long-Term Care Directory | Find Care Near You

The same is true in Australia. These respite care services can provide temporary relief for primary caregivers and offer various benefits for both the caregiver and the person receiving care. Here's a breakdown of what each type of service can offer:

Adult Day Care Centers:

  • Provide structured activities and socialization for older adults in a safe and supervised environment.
  • Can offer short-term or long-term programs, depending on needs.
  • Services may include meals, medication management, personal care, and therapeutic activities.
  • Can offer a break for caregivers who work or need time for themselves.

Assisted Living Facilities:

  • Provide housing and support services for seniors who need some assistance with daily living activities but don't require around-the-clock care.
  • Some facilities offer specialized respite programs or short-term stays for those who need temporary assistance.
  • May offer similar services to adult day care centers, along with additional support like laundry and housekeeping.
  • Can provide peace of mind to caregivers knowing their loved one is in a safe and supportive environment.

In-Home Care Agencies:

  • Provide caregivers who come to the seniors' home to assist with daily living activities like bathing, dressing, and medication management.
  • Some agencies offer respite care services where a different caregiver provides temporary relief for the primary caregiver.
  • Can offer flexibility and personalized care, allowing the senior to remain in their familiar environment.
  • Provides both physical and emotional support for the caregiver, knowing their loved one is well cared for.

Resources in Australia:

  • My Aged Care: Australian government website provides information on aged care services.
  • Carers Australia: Not-for-profit organization supporting unpaid carers.

Given the intense demands placed on unpaid caregivers, one might expect respite care to be a widely embraced solution in Australia. While residential and community center-based respite options are well-known, our survey indicates that in-home respite care is not as commonly utilized as it could be, pointing to a gap between available support and caregiver uptake.

Adam Birch is a counseling team leader for Carers WA, where he provides therapeutic support to caregivers through counseling, workshops, and support groups. He says caregivers struggle with respite care because it pulls them away from what they should be doing—delivering the care themselves. 

Even if carers move towards respite options, they may feel like they've failed, or they might encounter resistance from the care recipient. Respite options need to be utilized as a preventative strategy to burnout, not because burnout is already happening.

Caregivers often find themselves perpetually on call, feeling an obligation to remain available around the clock, regardless of whether they are physically present at the care location. This constant sense of duty discourages many from considering in-home respite care or seeking out resources that could offer them a much-needed break.

Being Prepared Helps

Preparing for the inevitable consequences of aging is crucial in ensuring a smoother transition for you and your family into the later stages of life. By proactively addressing the potential need for caregiving, you can significantly reduce the emotional and physical stress that often accompanies the role of a caregiver. 

In the United States, private Long-Term Care Insurance is available to pay for the expensive long-term care services many will need as they age. Traditional health insurance and Medicare will not pay for long-term care services outside a short-term period of skilled services. Medicaid will only pay for long-term care when the care recipient has little or no income and assets.

Most people obtain coverage as part of their retirement planning before they retire, often in their 40s or 50s. However, in Australia, private LTC Insurance is not available.

No private insurance options are explicitly designed to cover long-term care costs, like assisted living or in-home care, as you do in the United States and some other countries. 

Here's the current situation in Australia:

Government Support:

  • The Australian government primarily shoulders the responsibility for financing aged care through various programs, like Aged Care Home Care Packages and Residential Aged Care Facilities. These programs offer different levels of support based on individuals' needs and financial circumstances.
  • However, these programs may only partially cover some costs, leaving gaps or out-of-pocket expenses for families.

No matter where you live, aging is a reality, and the consequences of aging are squarely placed on family members who often become caregivers. Professional care services can help reduce the burden, but caregivers and families must take advantage of these options. 

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About the Author

Linda is a freelance writer interested in retirement planning, health and aging.

LTC News Contributor Linda Kople

Linda Kople

Contributor since October 31st, 2017

Editor's Note

In the United States, the responsibility of long-term care is on you and your loved ones, unless you have little or no income and assets. In which case, Medicaid will pay for your future care.

If you have savings and are concerned about asset protection and quality of care, planning will give you tremendous peace of mind, control, and independence. LTC Insurance will keep you in control.

Your LTC policy gives you access to your choice of quality care options, including care in your home. These benefits protect your income, assets, and lifestyle from the rising cost of care services, but they also allow your family the time to remain a son or daughter and not have to make the sacrifices of being a caregiver.

You may have read that Long-Term Care Insurance is expensive, but the fact is, for many people, an LTC policy is easy and affordable income and asset protection.

Most people get their coverage before they retire, ideally in their 40s or 50s, but depending on health, affordable options are available in their 60s and beyond. 

Be sure to seek the advice of an experienced, independent LTC Insurance specialist who will compare all the top insurance companies and match your age, health, and other factors to show you accurate quotes from all the top companies. 

Quality Long-Term Care is Available

If your parents or other loved ones are declining and they soon will need long-term care, or you are unhappy with care providers they have no, finding quality care options can be daunting. 

Don't let the stress of finding high-quality long-term care services for a loved one make life difficult. Your loved ones deserve quality care, and many options exist, including in-home care, adult day care, assisted living, memory care, and nursing home services. 

The LTC NEWS Caregiver Directory provides help by allowing you to browse through more than 80,000 care providers. This free, extensive national database covers a broad spectrum of long-term care services, making locating qualified caregivers or suitable care facilities easier. You can search for providers in your or your loved one's area while learning about their qualifications and available services.

If your loved one has an LTC Insurance policy, the benefits open the door to many quality care options. LTC NEWS can help process claims from any Long-Term Care Insurance policy. LTC NEWS, in partnership with Amada Senior Care, a nationally recognized in-home health care agency, ensures that you and your loved ones receive the quality care you deserve. This service comes at no cost or obligation - Filing a Long-Term Care Insurance Claim.

These four LTC NEWS guides will assist you in trying to find appropriate long-term services for a loved one:

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