Who cares for you?

There’s a TED talk that I have been shown on a couple of occasions where a man talks about how good quality relationships bring us happiness. It’s based on a Harvard study^ that started in the 1930s and – at the time of the TED talk in 2015 – had been running continuously for 75 years. The clearest message to come from this epic study is that “good relationships keep us healthier and happier” regardless of social class, status or wealth. The guy has me for the first few minutes of the talk. But then he slips in – almost like he only just thought to mention it – that up until 2005 all the subjects of the study had been male.

I’d be super happy, too

Now I’m wary of a stereotype as much as the next person, but I’m willing to bet that – for at least the first handful of decades of the study – the men being surveyed who were coupled up were getting a pretty good deal. I’d be super happy too if I had someone to do all the cleaning, shopping, washing, cooking, ironing and caring.

Imagine that

Imagine going out to work for the day and coming home to find a home-cooked meal on the table, the children bathed, clean clothes in the wardrobe, family duties fulfilled in terms of birthday cards, presents, Mothers’ Day flowers (yours as well as theirs) and someone handing you a drink and asking you pleasantly about your day. Yes, I admit, this generalisation, has been lifted straight from the archives of 1950s and 60s TV programmes and adverts – but I detect a grain of truth in there.

Cynicism aside

That said – and all cynicism aside – now that the study has been graciously extended to include “the wives” (his words), the findings are holding out. Being in a good relationship seems to increase happiness, health and longevity for everyone. There are benefits to being in a partnership that have to do with sharing – joys, tasks, burdens, worries… money. What’s wrong with those 1950s stereotypes is that it is always the woman who is the Chief Homemaker. However, if you take gender out of the equation for a moment, being part of a team where one member is earning more money than the other shouldn’t really matter because, in a team, you should in theory get to share the wealth.

Magic laundry

My Husband had a male colleague in the 1990s (I still think that’s recent) who declared that he would put his dirty underwear in the linen basket each night and magically find clean items in the drawer each morning. He had absolutely no idea how the one action led to the other. I remember being shocked by this (mostly because I couldn’t understand how a fully grown adult hadn’t mastered the basics of a washing machine). And we are rightly shocked by statistics such as the UN figures from end-2020 that showed that for every hour of unpaid work done by a man around the globe, 3.4 hours is done by a woman.

Equal rights

It is shocking because it displays an underlying bias in how we value work that has traditionally been done by women. And there is something deeply wrong in relationships where both team members work just as hard as each other but only the one that earns money outside the home gets to say what it is spent on. However, in the context of an equal and fair relationship, if one of you is using your time to earn money and one of you is using your time to clean, cook, care and launder, then you surely have equal rights to the benefits of all those activities. Just because you’re the one doing more of the nose-wiping and swing pushing, doesn’t make the children any more ‘yours’. And just because you earn more money while someone else is doing those other things, that also shouldn’t make the money any more ‘yours’.

You are likely to be a carer

But it gets a bit more complicated when we extend the caring role to beyond bringing up the children. As a woman aged 59 in the UK, you have a 50:50 chance of being a carer of some description – while men get to the ripe old age of 75 before that statistic applies to them*. On the basis that the average life expectancy in the UK for a woman is nearly 83 versus 79 for a man there must be a huge likelihood that, if you are the female part of a hetero-normative couple, you will be performing a caring role for your male partner towards the end of their life.

More women than men end up in a care home

So, if you are more likely to be caring for your partner, who is going to care for you? It’s not a nice thing to think about and I suspect most of us push it away. Uncomfortable as it may be, however, I have to tell you that more women than men end up (literally) in a care home. As if that weren’t depressing enough, average care costs for women are 2x that for men – which makes sense given that we live for longer and so don’t have the back-up of being cared for at home.

A list of numbers – great

I’m going to throw some more numbers at you here:

  • The average length of stay in a care home is around 30 months
  • The average cost per week is around £700 or £800 depending on the level of care required – that’s often over £3,000 a month and it can be a lot more in the more expensive parts of the country
  • Nearly half a million people live in care homes in the UK
  • Of these, there are 2.8 women for every man aged 65**
  • And finally, the average pension pot for a woman over 50 compared with a man’s is… about half ***

On the face of it, this looks like a rough deal for women. A man is more likely to get ‘free’ care from a female partner at home. A woman is therefore more likely to have to pay for her care. But a man is likely to have a shed load more in his pension than a woman. Great.

An inheritance could redress the balance

But if we go back to the ideal of an equal and fair relationship, this is not the whole story. If you are part of a couple who has built up some wealth in your lifetime – perhaps you own a house together, have some savings, one of you at least has a decent pension pot – then there is a chance that, as a woman, you could be the one to inherit whatever is left when your partner reaches the end of the line. And it could be this that helps to pay for your care costs. It’s not exactly six months of the year in the Seychelles sipping a negroni every evening, but it goes some way to redressing the balance if you have been the one doing more than your fair share of the caring in the past.

A budget for the last (wo)man standing

In this scenario, it doesn’t really matter who has the most in their pension pot within a partnership if you approach your finances as a couple and view all your assets as jointly held. This is massively important if at any point in your lives one of you has done more of the caring for children, elderly relatives, loved ones with enhanced needs or … eventually, your elderly partner. Giving equal weight to the time spent by one of you caring versus the money earned (and pension built up) by one of you working more outside the home, makes it totally right and fair that whoever is the last (wo)man standing gets the care home budget.

Shared resources under the marital mattress

When people divorce it can come as a shock to the bigger earner when generic-He has to share all his assets – including his pension pot. But if you are in a life partnership, then surely everything you are building together is a shared resource – both now and for the future. For those couples who stick it out for the long haul, it is not unreasonable perhaps to view some of the money that is stuffed under the marital mattress as provision for whichever one is left alone at the end of life. Quite likely, this will be Her.

Care funding might not be a priority

Planning for this is never sexy. It can be tricky talking to people who are still working – or just starting to enjoy retirement – about paying for care in their old age. A bit like talking to teenagers about mortgages and children – it’s never going to happen to them. I get that – and there’s always the worry that you might be putting money aside for something you may never need. I couldn’t suggest to anyone – least of all myself – that you should forego a family holiday to top up the care-home fund.

Who will care for you?

But some degree of planning for the surviving partner is certainly desirable. It isn’t just that you might have care home fees to pay for. Think also about any income that each partner has: eg the State pension which will stop when that person dies, or a company pension that pays a guaranteed income for life that will either stop or – best case – go down by half. Think also about how many marbles you might have left in your 80s or 90s and whether you would want someone else to help you with your finances.

These are all questions that require some thought. Maybe not immediately – but definitely if you inherit money or when you are assessing the size of your pension pot. Think about what the money is for. Think about yourself and your needs. If you’re lucky enough to get old before you die, think about who is going to care … for you.

Must go – the washing machine’s beeping and that laundry won’t hang itself out.


^Harvard Study of Adult Development; *CarersUK 2015; **ONS 2011 study; ***PensionBee




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This article represents the personal opinion of Carole Haswell only and does not represent any opinion of Beaufort Financial Planning Limited. Financial decisions should not be made on the basis of this article