building a society for all ages

Second World Assembly on Ageing Madrid, Spain 8 -12 April 2002

Older women: perpetual helpers in need of help

"There is also a significant gender dimension to this portrait of humanity's 'coming of age'. Women nearly everywhere are living longer than men. Women are more likely than men to be poor in old age. They face a higher risk of chronic illness and disability, discrimination and marginalization. Women are also more likely to be care-givers and sometimes face a triple burden: child care; elder care; and, of course, seeing to their own well-being. But these contributions - to their families, communities and the economy-are often overlooked."

-UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan

Even in the best of times and in the best of places, older persons often need a hand, but older women are more likely to face a predicament where they need more than casual assistance. They need special attention and protection.

Older women are much more likely than men to be poor. During a lifetime of work at lower paying jobs -or even jobs that are unpaid, such as household work - they often find themselves with little or no means of support. They are unlikely to have a regular pension.

While older women need some assistance from society, they often have much to contribute. With the skills that they have acquired over a lifetime of work, they can play an irreplaceable role in the family and the community-when they are allowed to contribute. Making the most of their skills can only benefit their community and society as a whole.

Gender, ageing and poverty
The feminization of the older population is a global phenomenon. In almost all countries, women live longer than men - in some cases much longer. Today, there are 328 million women aged 60 and over, and only 265 million men. As the population grows older, the difference becomes more pronounced. And all too often, the older they become, the poorer they become.

Women have traditionally had fewer opportunities to earn and save. More often than not, they are paid less well than men for the same work, and they are more likely to find work in the informal sector. When they do work in the paid labour force, their participation is likely to be shorter and more irregular, as they may interrupt their careers to fulfil family obligations or to provide care to an older family member. Because women earn less than men, when they do receive pensions, the pensions may provide less. And unfortunately for women, social security - which is supposed to provide security for older persons - was created for the benefit of wage earners and usually does not recognize the value of household work, child-rearing and elder care.

Cultural practices and legal systems also discriminate against women in many countries. Women often have a lower social status and less access to property and inheritance than men. Under some systems, daughters inherit only half as much as their brothers, and mothers inherit even less. In some places, when a woman becomes a widow, she may retain custody of her children, while the legal guardianship passes to a male relative, and with it the control of the children's assets and property.

An extreme form of discrimination occurs when, due to local catastrophes, accidents, crop failure or poor weather, an older woman may be accused of witchcraft. Then she may be ostracized, chased away, beaten, or even killed.

Support systems for older persons
Most societies in developing countries rely on traditional family support systems-which most often means women-for elder-care, while in developed countries there are usually formal pension and care systems. Yet the rapid ageing of the population, together with the declining availability of family caregivers, is straining care systems for older people everywhere.

Ageing in developing countries is occurring much more rapidly than it did in the developed countries, with the result that within a relatively short period of time there will be fewer younger people available to care for many older people. By 2030, more than 75 per cent of the world's older population will live in developing countries.

At the same time, the traditional values that underpin those family support systems are themselves under pressure and are beginning to change. In traditional societies, older persons have control over certain resources and are viewed as the guardians of wisdom. Consequently, they are treated with great respect and occupy positions of status. But modernization and industrialization are causing those traditional value systems to change, with more value placed on economic success and formal education than on age and wisdom. As the status of older men and women in traditional societies erodes, and with fewer caregiver available, the traditional support systems may prove insufficient, if not supplemented with assistance and support.

Urbanization and migration are also weakening the traditional support systems. Young people often leave older family members behind when they migrate to the cities. Once in the cities, young women often go to work as well, and are no longer available to care for older parents at home.

In developed countries, the majority of older persons do not live with their children or otherwise depend on their families for support. Most of them live with their spouses and most depend on formal pension systems for their financial support. But once again, women are at a distinct disadvantage. When a male spouse dies, a widow may not receive as much financial support in terms of social security or pension as her husband did. She may, however, outlive him by many years. And she is much more likely to experience isolation and marginalization.

When care is needed from family members, it is usually other women who provide it. Women in all societies are expected to provide unpaid care-giving labour. In the developed world in particular, this can trap women in a vicious circle: the fact that they are expected to provide unpaid labour can interfere with career advancement and lead to lower pensions, as they may need to leave the workplace intermittently. Their resulting lower pensions or financial support will eventually then leave them more dependent on other family members, usually women, for care. Without government or social intervention, the cycle continues.

Health and well-being
Men and women suffer different health problems as they age. Men tend to suffer more from acute illnesses that require hospitalization, while women often suffer more from chronic diseases, that, while not life threatening, may be disabling. Health care delivery is generally geared more towards acute care, and often ignores the needs of older women who might benefit more from home healthcare than hospitalisation or going to live in a nursing home. In some developed societies, medical coverage may provide for hospital stays and for institutional care in a nursing home, but is very limited in terms of home health-care assistance which is much less expensive. Without subsidized home health care assistance, if a woman's family cannot afford home health care, there may be no other option but to move her to a nursing home, at vastly greater expense for the state.

The AIDS epidemic has greatly intensified the care-giving burden of older women, who are forced to serve as substitute parents for their children's children. But the social systems have not yet had sufficient time to develop support for these caregiver, who often lack the financial and physical resources they need to raise yet another family. Compounding the problem, the adult children that would have cared for them in their older years are gone.

Helping older women helps society
Older women have always made an important contribution - as caregiver, counsellors, mentors, producers, policy-makers, fund-raisers, historians, confidants, and grandparents or great-grandparents. While their contributions remain significant - if there were a price tag attached, it would be substantial - the situation of many older women, especially the poor and disadvantaged, has remained invisible to the policy-makers of the developed and developing countries.

The gender dimensions of ageing require special consideration when plans, policies and programmes aimed at addressing the needs of older persons are developed. While the issues confronted by older women have been on the agenda of the international community for the last 25 years at United Nations conferences, the issue has gained more visibility internationally over the last decade.

The Second World Assembly on Ageing: finding the right prescriptions
Governments and societies need new responses to the changing nature of the ageing process, and these new responses must recognize the needs of older women. The Second World Assembly on Ageing, which will be held this April in Madrid, offers the opportunity to set standards on policies and programmes aimed at improving the quality of life for the ageing. To provide a basis for discussions at the Assembly, the Secretary-General, in two reports, provided a number of recommendations:

· Challenge stereotypes - including those held by many older persons themselves. The media, education and advertising should be used to combat damaging stereotypes and recognize and promote the contributions of older women.

· Collect more information - to deepen the understanding of the connections between poverty, ageing and gender and to help formulate proper policy responses.

· Improve living conditions and economic security of older women - through legislation and programmes that ensure that older women can get jobs, fair pay, access to credit, equal inheritance rights, and eliminate discrimination in pension schemes.

· Improve older women's well-being and health status - by educating health-care providers to recognize and address the specific needs of older women, and providing mental health services and access to in-home assistance services in place of institutionalization for women suffering from chronic illnesses or a degree of disability.

· Promote lifelong learning for women - by providing training and re-training to equip older women with knowledge of modern technologies so they can remain in the mainstream of society.

· Improve the situation and well-being of caregivers-by acknowledging that it is women who usually become the caregivers, for both elder-care and for illness, and that many women in this role require assistance, from men, from society and from services such as house-keeping help, self-help groups, specialized counselling and training, and respite care.

This article was based on information provided by the Division for the Advancement of Women in the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs.

For additional information, please contact:

United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women
Emanuela Calabrini
Tel: (1-212) 963-8814

Depatment of Economic and Social Affairs
Tel: (1-212) 963-0500

UN Department of Public Information
Tel: (1-212) 963-0499

Published by the United Nations Department of Public Information DPI/2264 March 2002

Back to Table of Contents