Silent carers: meet the sandwich generation men

While the majority of care carried out by those in the sandwich generation is managed by women, men play an important and often hidden role.

By Joy Persaud

The sandwich generation is facing increasing demands as people live and work longer, with men – as well as women – bearing the financial and emotional burden 1.

Those caring for older relatives as well as dependent children often need to hold down a job, which can mean handling multiple responsibilities to meet the needs of loved ones, often with scant support.

Such demands can lead to personal and financial difficulty, as these carers – often in middle age or older – strive to keep everyone happy. And carers often pay a price for trying to be there for everyone.

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Stressed generation

Helen Walker, chief executive of Carers UK, cites the organisation’s research, which reveals that more than 67% of the sandwich generation are aged between 40 and 54 years, and 16% are men.

She says, “It’s becoming ever clearer that the sandwich generation – those caring for children as well as sick, older or disabled relatives – is a growing social group in our ageing population.

“As well as taking on dual caring responsibilities, this group are likely to be juggling work with caring and, as a result, it is one of the most time-poor and stressed generations.”

But men are less likely to identify themselves as carers. More than one-quarter of male carers in employment did not describe or acknowledge themselves as a carer to others, according to a report produced jointly by the Carers Trust and the Men’s Health Forum.

Who, me? A carer?

“Employers and health and social care professionals need to be aware that male carers are less likely to identify or describe themselves as a carer to others,” stated the researchers. “Their need for support may not therefore be immediately obvious and might result in them missing out on vital help.

“Employers need to have, and make sure all staff are aware of, policies to support carers at work.”

Further, the researchers said employers should introduce carers’ leave to enable their employees to balance work and care and address male carers’ concerns about the effect caring has on their employment.

Unfair expectations

Father-of-one Charles Wright, 46, left a full-time job to spend more time caring for his family, including his 82-year-old mother, Mary, who lives alone.

He says, “I was doing a full day in the office – with no breaks – and then driving to my mum’s place. After she had a bad fall, I’d check she was OK daily before going home. By then, my child was already asleep and my wife was about to go to bed.

“It wasn’t the done thing to leave work early, especially as I was heading up a team. I felt too uncomfortable to ask to work flexibly or from home.”

Lucy Ives, a care support worker at Care for the Carers, East Sussex, says employers can be “very cautious of men with caring responsibilities, adding that it isn’t uncommon for male carers to be asked why their wife or partner doesn’t look after the children or parents.

“Carers are generally expected to make up time that they miss in the workplace,” says Ives. “Many have to give up work to enable them to fulfil their commitments as their employers do not make flexible working a practical solution.”

Carer-friendly workplaces

Carers UK has found that the vast majority (89%) of UK workers believe a supportive line manager or understanding employer would be important to them if they provided unpaid care for a loved one.

Walker says, “Our business forum, Employers for Carers, helps employers support carers in their workplace. It brings together a growing number of employers like Aviva who are creating friendly carer workplaces.”

Supporting dads

To bring the issues faced by sandwich carers to the fore, community charity Action East Devon launched a campaign, Hi Vis, so carers can be better supported in the workplace.

Hi Vis spokesperson Alison Upton said, “We have found that men tend to feel isolated at work due to their caring responsibilities – not being able to go for a drink after work and so on. From most people we talk to, their employers don’t know the extent of their caring responsibility.”

Jason (pictured) is one of those who will benefit from the support provided by Hi Vis. When his wife became ill with a progressive lung condition, he gave up his job to look after her while caring for their son.

He admits, “For me the challenge was having no freedom, no social life. There must be a heck of a lot of blokes in this situation and struggling but who are too proud, too embarrassed, too shy, or just don’t know what to do and sinking more everyday.” 

Money matters

Caring for two generations can also have an impact on finances, says Walker.

“Many carers find their financial resilience diminishes the longer their caring role continues, meaning some don’t have the savings or the income they would like in later life,” she says.

“Not being able to work as many hours as they’d like, working carers could find they’re not able to retire when they might have liked to. Others may have lower pension contributions that mean their income during retirement is reduced.”

Ives echoes this, saying that many sandwich carers find their finances dwindle, especially if they give up work.

“With the increase to outgoings and a very really possibility of reduction in income, many carers have to dip into their savings and retirement money. We already hear of older carers accessing pension money early to afford things they need, so when you combine this with a reduction in their pension it may be very hard for these carers when they retire.” 

Wright, who is now self-employed, has critical illness cover and life insurance to cover mortgage payments, which he arranged when he got married 14 years ago.

“It’s good knowing the financial protection is in place should anything happen to me,” he says. “I’m lucky my income wasn’t affected by my caring responsibilities, but being exhausted from the hours spent caring on top of work did affect my health. I’m less stressed now but I earn less as a self-employed person.”

With all of these issues in mind, Walker is hopeful that the Government’s forthcoming Social Care Green Paper will deliver high quality, affordable care services to support older and disabled people, giving sandwich carers the ability to better manage work and caring responsibilities.

She summarises: “They must also receive the practical and financial support to care so they don’t have to put their own lives on hold.”

Some names have been changed.