The tightrope generation – caring without a safety net.

Thank you to Kirsty Woodard from Ageing without children ( for today’s blog contribution. 

Much is made of the “sandwich generation” people, usually women, caring for both their parents and their children at the same time, however the reality is that childless people are up to a third more likely to be carers for their elderly parents ([1]) than their siblings with children. It’s easy to dismiss their concerns by saying “well with no children to worry about as well, caring is going to be much easier” but we would argue that being what we call a tightrope carer i.e. a carer who has no family safety net below them is just as difficult in its own way and brings different but equal problems to sandwich caring.

“I had to give up work and take my (much reduced) pension early, as the juggling of caring for my mother and my job became too much. Fortunately my mother had enough income to pay me a little cash each month, otherwise I wouldn’t have managed at all. Because I had no children/family there was the assumption that my caring role could take all my time”

The UK in line with most of the western world has seen a doubling in the number of people without children rising from 1 in 9 people born in the 1940s to 1in 5 of those born in the 1960s.

What’s it like to care for an elderly parent knowing that there is no one to do the same for you?

“I cared for my mum from 1999 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer until 2007 when she died. I was so scared about losing her. It was a very difficult journey for many reasons. Towards the end especially, trying to cope and not understanding how to access services. For me though, the overriding feeling was fear … fear of losing an anchor in my life. I have always thought that without a ‘downward’ family to anchor to, when parents pass away, it it sooooo much more difficult to deal with. I believe when you have children, your security and safely, reason for living and general purpose is known. Without a ‘downward’ family nor a ‘sideways’ family (I have no siblings), I felt completely and utterly alone. It was a very traumatic time for me … a long scary 8 years which has taken me a long time to recover from”

The impact of being a carer is considerable. There’s nothing like being confronted with the bewildering maze of confusion surrounding the NHS and social care to truly bring home how much help people need to fight their way through it. Person after person contacting AWOC tells a similar story; it wasn’t until they started to be a carer for their own parents that they truly understood how hard it is to navigate the system and get help. Like all carers, they talk of endless phone calls, long repetitive forms, countless meetings with different people who seemed to come and go out of their parents life with no real understanding of what was going on, hours in cars and on the phone visiting, reassuring, helping, arranging. And always a small voice in the back of their mind saying “who will be doing this for me?”

Many people discussing this on our facebook group pointed out that family friendly policies in their work place often really meant child friendly with little consideration given to those who had to take time off to care for parents or indeed spouses as compared to those who had to take time off for their children

“ Seeing ones family ageing and ill is hard with no balance of young folk around it can give a very narrow and dispiriting view of life. Gave up working in NHS for more flexible employer but eventually gave that up to care. Fearful for own future as to get good care you need someone to assist and look out for you. In common with many those who give up work to care we aren’t able to contribute to our own pensions”

Carers often have to give up full time work to take on their caring role; in many cases not because they want too but because inflexible work conditions make balancing both impossible. Companies can do more to support carers by having a carers policy, ensuring family friendly means than child friendly, offer training to managers about supporting carers and have more flexible working practices. More and more of us will become carers in the future and the best businesses will recognise and plan for that.



[1] Childlessness and Upward Intergenerational Support: Cross-National Evidence from Eleven European Countries Luca Maria Pesando

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