Economists at HSE University and the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA) have assessed the situation of women from the ‘sandwich generation’ — those who have to take care of both their children and elderly parents. The results were mixed: women in this situation often fail to eat regularly, neglect medical check-ups and are more likely to be overweight, but at the same time suffer less frequently from chronic diseases, smoke and drink less and generally show a higher level of life satisfaction. The preprint of the study is published in the Munich Personal RePEc Archive.
In the second half of the twentieth century, a combination of demographic and economic processes resulted in a fairly large group of middle-aged people in developed countries who have to take care of both elderly parents and young children at the same time. Researchers have named this the ‘sandwich generation’ — people sandwiched between two generations of relatives who both require their attention and care.
The emergence of this group is due to a number of factors, the first of which is an increase in life expectancy, leading to moreolder people in need of care. The second is the decrease in the number of children in families. Whereas in the past, care for parents could be shared by several siblings, now it is the responsibility of just one or two. The third trend is an increase in childbearing age. This means that more people have to take care of their elderly parents while still caring for their children.
Existing studies differ in their assessment of the effects of this double care burden. Many of them note that people caring for two generations of relatives have very little free time, are constantly stressed, feel exhausted and, on average, rate their health lower. However, there are studies that find no such negative effects, and furthermore, it has been observed that caring for relatives can increase life satisfaction.
The presented work used data from the 2016 Russian Longitudinal Monitoring Survey — HSE University, which involved more than 12,000 people. Monitoring participants were asked whether they were looking after elderly relatives or children, and were asked about their health status, lifestyle and life satisfaction. Demographic and socio-economic characteristics were also taken into account for each respondent.
As child and elderly care in Russia has traditionally been the duty of women, these were the focus of the study. The authors considered the ‘sandwich generation’ to be those who reported taking care of younger and older relatives at least several times a week. Among women aged 30-60 there were 11.7% in this situation, with more than half of them (58%) also working.
The study found that women caring for both parents and children take less care of their own health (this is most pronounced among working women): they are less likely to have preventive health check-ups, are more likely to have poor eating habits and are more likely to be overweight. However, there appears to be no significant effect of the double burden on their actual health status. For example, women who take care of relatives are less likely to have chronic diseases, slightly less likely to smoke and drink alcohol and less likely to suffer from depression.
This low proportion of chronically ill caregivers may be due to the fact that people with serious health problems lack the energy to care for two generations, or that they are underdiagnosed (because they miss medical check-ups). A reason for less exposure to depression may be that caring for relatives is often perceived as important, giving a sense of accomplishment, and therefore increasing life satisfaction in general.
It is important to look not at the average effect of being in the ‘sandwich’, but at its distribution. The magnitude and significance of the effect varies according to the socio-demographic characteristics of women.
For example, younger and working women experience greater negative effects of double care.
Being in a ‘sandwich’ has a negative impact on lifestyles and selected health indicators for women in Russia. It can be assumed that this problem will only worsen over time, creating increased public health risks.
The problems of ‘sandwich people’ are particularly pronouncedin Russia. While women with children can rely on state support (although the extent and proposed formats of such support are often criticised), the long-term care system in Russia is at an early stage of development and has little to offer these people.