University of Toronto Magazine University of Toronto Magazine

Caring for the Elderly

Women often look after their older relatives – for no pay. As populations age, this may have to change

Faced with a rapidly aging population, South Korea is grappling with the problem of how to look after the nation’s elderly when fewer caregivers are available to do the job for free. How the country addresses this issue could be an example to North Americans, says Ito Peng, a U of T sociology professor.

Peng has written a series of reports on Japan and South Korea for the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development, and will publish a book chapter next year about changing demographics in the two countries. She says Japan and South Korea are trying to deal with elder care through broader social policy than is currently the case in Canada.

Until the 1990s, South Korea and Japan relied almost exclusively on women’s unpaid work for the care of children and the elderly. But recent economic and policy changes have resulted in more women entering the workforce. Today, 53 per cent are employed outside of the home, but still face pressure to provide unpaid child and elder care.

Increasingly, some South Korean and Japanese women are deciding against marriage and others are delaying marriage and having fewer children. As a result, the two countries have among the lowest fertility rates in the world, and their populations are aging rapidly. By 2026, the portion of the population 65 and over in South Korea will almost double, to 20 per cent, and the labour force will need about four million additional workers. To address the looming shortage of caregivers, South Korea, in 2008, adopted Elderly Care Insurance, which covers care for the entire population 65 and over. It is funded with a 4.7 per cent tax on wages. Peng says that a similar plan might make sense in Canada. “Aging is a national problem. We need coherent ways to figure it out.”

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