By Shereen Jegtvig

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Caring for aging parents can be a burden for anyone, but poor women are more likely to need to take it on and to enter a financial downward spiral as a result, a recent study suggests.

Women with better financial resources can afford paid healthcare for an aging parent, which allows those women to remain in the workforce, the authors found. But women with the lowest incomes end up taking care of their parents, and the expenses and lost work time involved reduces their income even further.

"We looked at the relationship among parental caregiving, labor force participation and financial wellbeing," said lead author Yeonjung Lee, a researcher and professor at the Faculty of Social Work at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada.

Past research had only looked at women's situation at a single point in time, Lee told Reuters Health, "so they weren't sure if the women were already poor before they took care of their parents, or if they became poor after they took care of their parents."

Lee's team used three waves of information from the U.S. Health and Retirement Survey, a large population study that focuses on the transitions Americans go through as they retire.

The study included survey information for 2,093 women aged 51 and older who had at least one living parent or parent-in-law during 2006, 2008 and 2010.

Caregiving was defined as providing help with the activities of daily living during the previous year.

At the beginning of the study period, Lee and colleagues found, there were already differences between people caring for a parent and those who were not. The 1,837 non-caregivers had a median household income of $51,200, while the 254 caregivers had a median household income of $46,410.

Two years later in 2008, the median income for non-caregivers rose to $52,399 and the median income for caregivers dropped to $43,607.

In 2010, the financial downturn that many Americans experienced also affected the women in the study. The median income of non-caregivers dropped to $49,484, but the median income for the caregivers dropped to $40,900.

Overall, the researchers found, women who cared for their parents in 2006 and 2008 had lower incomes in 2008 and 2010. As household income increased, women were 23 percent less likely to care for parents in 2008 and 12 percent less likely to care for parents in 2010.

"We found that taking care of parents led to negative outcome in their financial status, but it also went the opposite direction," Lee said.

"People who had less household income and less financial resources were more likely to take care of their parents so there is this cycle that they cannot get out of - they are poor, then taking care of parents, then being poor and taking care of their parents - there's this kind of cycle," Lee said.

Lee said further research would be beneficial, including looking at how loss of work while caring for parents might affect the social security benefits of the caregivers when they retire.

Caregivers inevitably need to take time off from work unless they have the funds to get somebody else to help out, Judy Strauss told Reuters Health.

"So they end up losing work, and also then losing the ability to accumulate retirement funds, such as social security," said Strauss, a social worker and researcher with the National Institute for Psychotherapies and the Touro College School of Social Work in New York City.

Strauss, who was not involved in the new study, said it's never too early for women to plan for this stage in life.

"I think that siblings have to get together way before a parent needs care and set up support for the parent," she said.

"Given that adult children are dispersed all over the place, it gets difficult to take care of a parent," Strauss said. "Getting together as a team to plan - when the parents are healthy - makes sense.

But Strauss said there are also things women who find themselves in the caregiver roll can do.

"Women need to give themselves the space to give themselves support - as in counseling, caregiving groups or setting up family meetings," she said. "The caregivers need support themselves to get through some of the harder stresses of caregiving."

"And society - in terms of policy - if we don't take care of midlife women we're not going to be able to take care of our children or our elderly," Strauss said. "That's my biggest concern - that here in the United States, we care for the children, we care for the elderly, but we forget the midlife woman who takes care of both those populations."

"There should be programs - just like maternity leave, there should also be caregiving leave," Strauss said.

SOURCE: The Journals of Gerontology, Series B, online January 31, 2014.

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