International Women’s Day 2021 comes after 12 months of global lockdowns. We have become bitterly aware of the daily challenges facing those with the dual burden of caring for loved ones, whilst juggling remote working and other responsibilities. In the UK, studies show that 4 in 5 carers have been providing more care than usual during the pandemic, with most unable to take breaks. The majority admitted to a strain on their mental and physical health, largely down to a lack of support services, and disconnection from family and friends.
Globally, responsibility for this unpaid care work often falls to women. In Eastern Europe, where World Jewish Relief works, 82% of those undertaking informal care are women. This is partly due to more traditional gendered roles, but it is also impacted by the fact that women live on average 10 years longer than men in the region and tend to care for their husbands in their later years.
In the UK, particularly within the Jewish community, we are lucky to be well-resourced with support services for older people. But in Eastern Europe residential, social and daytime care services for older people are chronically underfunded, and options are severely limited. Large state institutions are usually the last place people want their relatives to end up, leaving them in impossible situations when their needs become more complex, such as with the onset of dementia. So they battle on, providing care to their loved ones from home.
Conditions are tough for those caring for relatives. Most families live in poorly maintained, cramped tower blocks without access to outdoor space, not at all suited to older people’s needs. And locked down under such close quarters, many report family conflicts becoming unbearable. Even at the beginning of the pandemic reports showed domestic violence incidents had doubled in Ukraine. Along with the loss of livelihoods and rising cost of utilities, older people and their carers are under increasing strain just trying to get by.
Whilst we cannot entirely alleviate the strain on carers, the Jewish communities we support provide homecare services, day centre groups, social gatherings and befriending programmes, which offer some much-needed respite for carers, and literally provide a lifeline for their loved ones. And in Ukraine and Moldova, where high levels of labour migration mean many older people’s relatives live abroad, people know their parents and grandparents will be cared for by the community.
To address the immense strain on carers, since March 2020 we have piloted projects in Kyiv, Kharkiv and Minsk providing holistic support to carers of people who have dementia. These projects coincided with the pandemic and thankfully, help came when carers needed it the most. Our partner organisations provide information on dementia, which is typically misunderstood, as well as psychological support and respite care. Most of the participants are women caring for parents or husbands, and are at breaking point. One participant said:
I had to quit my job because my mother needs me all the time. I really miss my work and my colleagues. But now I cannot afford to work - my mother has become like my child. We survive with the help of the Jewish community. Nobody else cares about us.
We plan to continue this support, and expand into other locations where we work, sharing our learning and knowledge and providing the vital respite, psychological and social support that carers desperately need.
A delayed vaccine rollout means the pandemic and challenges that have come with it for carers are set to continue across Eastern Europe. Looking ahead, we must invest in support for the women falling into caring roles, to prevent complete burnout. Unpaid care work takes place in the home, behind closed doors, and remains largely unrecognised and underappreciated. This International Women’s Day whilst striving for a more equitable division of caring responsibilities, let’s also shine a light on carers and appreciate their work for what it is – an absolutely vital part of our society.