The ‘invisible army’ of elderly carers

Some of you may have seen my paper with Jason Noble, Jason Hilton and Jakub Bijak from 2013 called Simulating the cost of social care in an ageing population.  The paper presents an agent-based model of informal social care in the United Kingdom.  Our virtual agents live in a simulated UK, and try to live out their lives — moving around, working, starting families, etc. — and when their family members need help due to illness, they try to contribute their time to help out.

Model results showed that, surprisingly, retirement age has a strong impact on social care costs across the population.  When the retirement age was raised, there was a net increase in tax revenues up to a certain point, but beyond that critical limit social care costs began to rise.  The model seemed to indicate that an unexpectedly large number of elderly people were providing informal care to their spouses or other loved ones, and so putting them back into the workforce actually led to increased demand for state-funded formal care for those left at home, increasing the cost to society overall.

I’ve just noticed a news posting from Age UK from last month which is pretty relevant to this:

New figures released this morning by Age UK show there is an army of carers amongst the oldest in our society, who are between them saving the health and care system a massive £5.9bn a year by providing unpaid care.

Over the past 7 years the number of carers aged 80 and over has rocketed from 301,000 to 417,000, an increase of nearly 39%. Now 1 in 7 people aged 80 and over provide some form of care to family or friends.

Furthermore, over half (144,000) of carers in this age group who are caring for someone in their home are doing so for more than 35 hours a week, while a further 156,000 are caring for more than 20 hours a week. As our population continues to age it is estimated that there will be more than 760,000 carers aged 80 and beyond by 2030.

I’m the first to admit that I’m a bit of an outsider when it comes to gerontology and the study of social care in detail, so it’s possible that this study isn’t telling us much that’s new.  It’s news to me, however, and I’m glad to see that our model showed us some interesting results that turned out to be reflective of reality, despite the necessarily simplified nature of the model’s systems.

Now that there’s some solid data out there about this ‘invisible army’ of older carers, I think it may be time to revisit this model and investigate this aspect more fully.  Caring for someone 35 hours a week or more is exhausting work for anyone, let alone someone over 80 years old who should be enjoying a dignified retirement.  Perhaps we can use agent-based models to investigate policies that could take some of this burden away from our older population.

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