Does Caregiving Affect Retirement? It Depends Upon the Caregiver—And the Care

By Maximiliane E. Szinovacz

Popular lore has it that to age successfully, retirees should stay busy (what David Ekerdt calls the “busy ethic,” in an article from The Gerontologist [26:3, 1986]), remaining engaged in active leisure such as sports or hobbies, participating in productive activities like volunteering or even continuing to work. Typically not part of this agenda are caregiving responsibilities.

Caregiving and Retirement Timing

Caregiving responsibilities can influence individuals’ retirement decisions and their post-retirement well-being. The effect of caregiving responsibilities on retirement decisions depends upon the relative balance between care-related time demands and financial needs due to care recipients’ illness or disability, as well as on contextual factors such as gender or care relationship. Men seem more inclined to adjust retirement decisions to mesh with financial obligations; women, who usually carry the main responsibility for hands-on care, tend to respond to care-related time pressures.

Research by Dentinger and Clarkberg, based on the Cornell Retirement and Well-Being Study and published in the Journal of Family Issues (23:7, 2002), indicates that men were less prone to retire if they were involved in care for spouses, parents or other relatives, but not for parents-inlaw or non-relatives. In contrast, women were more likely to retire if they cared for their spouses, but not for others. However, a recent study by Jacobs, Laporte, Van Houtven and Coyte, based on the 2007 Canadian General Social Survey and published in Social Science and Medicine (102, 2014), showed that high- intensity caregiving (more than 15 hours per week) seems to be associated with full retirement for men and women.

If retirement is motivated by care demands, it is often deemed involuntary. Our research, using data from the U.S. Health and Retirement Study (http://hrsonline.isr.umich.edu) and published in The Gerontologist (45:1, 2005), demonstrates that men were more likely to perceive their retirement as “forced” if they had dependent grandchildren in the household or were involved in parent care. Among women, perceptions of forced retirement were linked to having stopped work for family care reasons.

Economic Consequences of Caregiving

Midlife retirement or work disruptions for caregiving can have long-lasting economic ramifications. In contrast to many Western nations that provide care credits toward Social Security benefits when workers take extended leaves for caregiving purposes, the U.S. Social Security system contains no considerations for work absences because of family responsibilities. The same applies to private pension plans, which typically require a set number of years with an employer for vesting, or with defined-contribution plans; these add no benefits toward workers’ accounts if they are on unpaid family leave.

The MetLife Study of Caregiving Costs to Working Caregivers (http://goo.gl/GzzBwA) estimated costs of parent care for men and women from lost Social Security and pension benefits and lost wages, and found the individual cost impact for men is more than $280,000, and for women, it is more than $320,000. Across all parental caregivers, this amounts to nearly $3 trillion. 

Wakabayashi and Donato, in an article in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior (47:3, 2006), further explored the economic consequences of care for women, relying on data from the U.S. Health and Retirement Study. Their results indicate that women who cared for parents in 1991 were at greater risk of poverty and for receipt of public assistance in 1999. These effects of caregiving were mediated by the impact of care on health and employment, that is, poverty and public assistance prevailed only among caregivers whose health declined or who stopped working.

Effects of Caregiving on Well-Being in Retirement

Numerous studies attest that caregiving undermines physical and mental health. These findings are relatively consistent across different types of caregiving (spouse care, parent care and raising grandchildren). What is less well known is how caregiving influences the psychological outcomes of retiring. Our research, based on data from the U.S. Health and Retirement Study and published in Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences (59B:6, 2004), suggests that perceived forced or too early retirement that is associated with spouse disability leads to increases in depressive symptoms among women, but not men.

Specifically, depressive symptoms measured by the Center of Epidemiology Depression Scale were higher among women who perceived that their retirement was too early and whose spouses had some limitations in activities of daily living compared to women who perceived that their retirement was on time or whose spouses were healthy. Furthermore, care obligations may preclude involvement in planned retirement activities. According to research by Vinick and Ekerdt, published in Growing Old in America (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1991), retirees sometimes feel that caregiving responsibilities “spoil” their retirement plans, especially when parents live in their retired child’s home.

Should Caregivers Continue to Work?

In view of these findings, caregivers on the verge of retirement may well ask whether they should retire to ease the burden created by the dual responsibilities of employment and caregiving, or continue to work. As far as finances are concerned, caregivers need to know that early retirement or pre-retirement work disruptions are likely to decrease retirement benefits. This may be of primary importance for non-married caregivers who cannot rely on spousal Social Security benefits, but early retirement also will reduce benefits based on spousal Social Security.

As for psychological well-being, Reid and Hardy, in an article from the Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences (54:6, 1999), offer two theories: role strain and role enhancement. The role strain hypo-thesis suggests that conflicting demands of caregiving and employment may undermine well-being. The role enhancement perspective posits that working provides caregivers with economic, social and emotional resources that can ease caregiver burden. Caregivers can receive support from co-workers or get away from the care situation while at work. Which of these theories applies to an individual caregiver may depend upon his or her commitment to and satisfaction with work. Caregivers who feel highly attached to their work may well be advised to continue working, whereas caregivers who work “just for the money” may consider leaving the workforce if they feel overwhelmed by the dual burden of work and caregiving, and if they can afford to do so.


Maximiliane E. Szinovacz, Ph.D., is professor in the Department of Gerontology in the John W. McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, Mass.

Editor’s Note: This article appears in the September/October 2014 issue of Aging Today, ASA’s bi-monthly newspaper covering issues in aging research, practice and policy. ASA members receive Aging Today as a member benefit; non-members may purchase subscriptions at our online store or Join ASA.