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Commentary: Burden of caring for ageing parents weighs heaviest on unmarried daughters

Women are expected to live well into their mid-80s, but many will find themselves unable to afford care in their old age when they are busy caring for aged parents instead of saving in midlife, says AWARE’s Shailey Hingorani.

Commentary: Burden of caring for ageing parents weighs heaviest on unmarried daughters

An elderly woman in a wheelchair, pushed by her caregiver. (Photo: Gaya Chandramohan)

SINGAPORE: Unmarried women with no children are more likely than married women to provide care for parents ageing at home.

This was the key finding in AWARE’s latest year-long research project studying the impact of family caregiving on caregivers’ retirement adequacy in Singapore.

This surprised us. We did not set out to interview unmarried women, but were interested in family members caring for ageing parents while living with them. Yet most of the 22 women we interviewed turned out to be single.

What we have since also discovered is that this trend is by no means unique to Singapore. Women make up vast numbers of caregivers all around the world.

Research in the US has found that unmarried daughters, daughters who live close to their parents, unemployed daughters and daughters without siblings are all much more likely to be parental caregivers.

Why is this so? Most caregivers we interviewed reported feeling like they had no choice but to assume the role because of their gender and unmarried status. 

When asked why she was a caregiver, one of our respondents, Xin Yi* (aged 54), best summed it up: “Because I am single, and I am a woman.”

Although most had more than three siblings (only one was an only child), their brothers and sisters were not assigned caregiving responsibilities because they had their own children to look after.

READ: Commentary: It is high time for a Ministry on Ageing Issues

At first sight, it may seem like a sensible division of labour for filial caregiving responsibilities to fall on the sibling with the fewest family responsibilities. After all, she doesn’t have many demands for her time - not to mention her income.

An elderly woman in a wheelchair with her caregiver. (File photo: TODAY)

But might this approach be short-sighted? Perhaps we should also take into account each individual’s likelihood of having future caregiving support - i.e. whether or not she has a family to support her in old age, as eldercare drains her of her own savings.


AWARE’s study focused on the impact of caregiving on four retirement factors: Employment, income, expenses and wealth.

Overall, we found that caregiving responsibilities compromise a caregiver’s ability to continue working. This also impacts her disposable income, as respondents with employment changes suffered a 63 per cent average loss in income, while out-of-pocket care-related expenses can balloon to more than a third of her monthly household income after subsidies.

Most of our respondents either reduced the number of hours they worked or stopped working entirely.

There are no specific national-level numbers of people who have reduced their work hours because of caregiving - but the 2018 Labour Force Survey found that 75,800 women have quit work entirely to care for older relatives.

Why is caregiving so incompatible with work? It comes down to three main reasons. First, the need to provide frequent supervision, especially for seniors prone to fainting spells or sudden falls.

Second, the poor and unpredictable health of seniors who need care, who typically require immediate attention and emergency hospital admissions.

Third, the temperamental nature of care recipients with dementia.

READ: Commentary: The hidden strength of those caring for loved ones with dementia

Some respondents tried to manage these challenges and juggle work commitments by hiring foreign domestic workers (FDWs).

Yet they found that many caregiving responsibilities, such as emotional care, went beyond what a FDW could provide. Additional support from siblings was also often unreliable and limited.

(Photo: Unsplash/Lily Banse)


Singapore’s last known quantitative study on informal caregiving, conducted in 2011, found that most family caregivers of seniors over 75 were aged 45 to 59 - the age when most people are building savings for their retirement.

As women are expected to live well into their mid-80s, how will they afford care in their old age if they cannot save for themselves at midlife?

According to CPF statistics, about four in 10 active CPF members who turned 55 in 2017 did not hit the Basic Retirement Sum (BRS) of S$83,000 in their retirement accounts. Women outnumbered men in this category.

There has been no significant improvement on this front: The percentage difference between men and women achieving BRS has stayed roughly the same over the last three years.

READ: Commentary: Caregivers are getting some support but deserve more care

What’s more, this data only includes active CPF members – employed workers who have received a contribution to their CPF accounts in the last three months.

However, caregivers spend a median of nine years outside the labour force providing care to their families, not earning an income or receiving any CPF contributions, according to a Parliament Reply by Manpower Minister Josephine Teo. There is no retirement savings data on this group to begin with. 

Caregivers with spouses and children can take comfort that even if they cannot afford their own care in old age, they can turn to immediate family members.

Wai Ching*, a respondent of ours who cares for a mother with dementia, does not have that option.

“My mum is fortunate … she still has children,” Wai Ching told us in her interview. “I will not be so fortunate.”

READ: Commentary: Navigating the new road to modern elderhood

Who cares for the social recluses of Japan after their parents are gone? (Photo: Unsplash)

Wai Ching’s situation will be increasingly more common. There were 87,500 single women between the ages of 40 to 59 years in 2017, Singapore’s annual Population in Brief revealed. Even more are staying single across all age groups compared to a decade ago.

It’s a sad irony that caregivers like her, who enable their parents to age in the comfort of their homes, are much more likely to end up ageing with great difficulty.


Family caregiving is a glue that holds family units together. Caregivers put the needs of their loved ones first, often to the neglect of their own well-being. They deserve more.

Earlier this year, the Government announced some plans to enhance caregiver support. These include expanded respite care options and support networks, and a monthly Home Caregiving Grant of S$200 (applications for which will open next month). All this represents a welcome step forward. Yet care is an issue that calls for bigger strides.

Today, there are no statutory requirements for companies to provide family care leave, though government initiatives encourage employers to offer unpaid caregiving leave. 

This is important, but leaves the financial burden of caring on the shoulders of caregivers.

The Government also provides financial incentives to companies to offer flexible work arrangements to help caregivers balance work and caregiving responsibilities. Although a crucial first step, in our culture of presenteeism and emphasis on face time, many employers still base worker appraisals on their physical presence in the office.

Finally, the various measures in place to offset care-related expenses do not compensate caregivers for the loss in income and retirement savings that often accompanies the provision of care.

Ms Janet Koh Hui Kheng takes care of her mother Madam Ng Sook Cheng full-time, and looks forward to the additional support for caregivers like herself. (Photo: Jalelah Abu Baker)

As an ageing population that will rely heavily on caregivers, it is worth reviewing providing stronger financial support for caregiving, including paid eldercare leave, a statutory right to flexible work arrangements, and caregivers’ support grant with cash and CPF contributions.

This third measure, arguably the most critical, would offset out-of-pocket expenses and help caregivers build retirement adequacy while caring for others.

READ: Commentary: Three stories from caregivers show we still undervalue caregiving

These actions would help all caregivers to older persons - male or female, married or unmarried. But they would go furthest to boost single, female caregivers’ chances to age with dignity and comfort.

Let’s ensure that the good daughters of today do not become the impoverished elderly of tomorrow. 

*The names used in this commentary are pseudonyms.

Shailey Hingorani is Head of Research and Advocacy, AWARE. AWARE will be holding Make Care Count ... in the National Budget at NVPC on Oct 5, an event where the public can suggest care-related recommendations for AWARE to submit to the 2020 Singapore Budget.  

Source: CNA/sl


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