urban institute nonprofit social and economic policy research

Caregiving, Volunteering by Seniors Valued at $162 Billion Per Year

Document date: September 27, 2005
Released online: September 27, 2005

Contact: Stu Kantor, (202) 261-5283, skantor@ui.urban.org

WASHINGTON, D.C., September 27, 2005—Adults age 55 and older contribute $162 billion worth of volunteering and unpaid caregiving annually, researchers at the nonpartisan Urban Institute estimate. These activities include caring for family members, helping friends and neighbors, and volunteering for nonprofit organizations.

Researchers Richard Johnson and Simone Schaner say the value of older Americans' unpaid activities ranged from $97.6 billion to $201.0 billion in 2002, depending on hourly "wages" assigned to various tasks. Moderate-cost assumptions, they say, lead to a $161.7 billion estimate, or $2,698 per senior. About 74 percent of older adults volunteered their time or provided unpaid care to family members in 2002.

Caring for family members absorbed more than 61 percent (or $99.6 billion) of the total value of unpaid activities, based on moderate-cost assumptions, in 2002. About two-fifths of this $99.6 billion went to spousal care, another two-fifths to grandchild care, and the remaining fifth to parent care. By comparison, the nation spent an estimated $135 billion on formal long-term care services for the elderly in 2004, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Older Americans contributed $44.3 billion through formal volunteering with an organization and $17.8 billion by informally helping others in need.

"Value of Unpaid Activities by Older Americans Tops $160 Billion Per Year," by Johnson and Schaner, is the fourth publication in the Urban Institute's Perspectives on Productive Aging research series. These briefs use data from the 2002 Health and Retirement Study, a nationally representative survey of adults 55 and older. The survey is conducted for the National Institute on Aging by the University of Michigan's Survey Research Center. Currently, 65.4 million people are 55 or older.

Other Findings

In 2002, using moderate-cost assumptions where applicable,

  • older women devoted more time than older men to unpaid activities, contributing an average of $2,968 per person, compared with $2,363 for men.
  • the average value of contributed time declined with age, falling from $2,970 per person age 55-64 to $2,055 per person age 75 and older.
  • Those age 55-64 earned $655 billion at paid jobs, more than eight times the value of unpaid activities. Even at age 65-74, when most people have stopped working, unpaid activities equalled barely half the monetary value of paid employment.

"Much of the current Social Security reform debate emphasizes the economic cost of an aging population and the importance of encouraging work at older ages," Johnson and Schaner conclude. "But the debate generally ignores the significant unpaid activities undertaken by older Americans. Work at older ages is important and should be encouraged, but not at the expense of meaningful volunteer and caregiving activities."

Perspectives on Productive Aging Series

The Perspectives on Productive Aging series documents the value of engagement among older adults and highlights the best ways for society and policymakers to support and encourage the full engagement of older Americans. Forthcoming publications will cover volunteering, work, factors affecting the level of activity, and transitions from paid work to other kinds of activity.

Perspectives on Productive Aging is supported through a grant from Atlantic Philanthropies. It is part of the Urban Institute's Retirement Project (http://www.urban.org/retirement). "Value of Unpaid Activities by Older Americans Tops $160 Billion Per Year," by Richard Johnson and Simone Schaner, is available at http://www.urban.org/url.cfm?ID=311227.

The Urban Institute is a nonprofit, nonpartisan policy research and educational organization that examines the social, economic, and governance challenges facing the nation.

Topics/Tags: | Health/Healthcare | Retirement and Older Americans

Usage and reprints: Most publications may be downloaded free of charge from the web site and may be used and copies made for research, academic, policy or other non-commercial purposes. Proper attribution is required. Posting UI research papers on other websites is permitted subject to prior approval from the Urban Institute—contact publicaffairs@urban.org.

If you are unable to access or print the PDF document please contact us or call the Publications Office at (202) 261-5687.

Disclaimer: The nonpartisan Urban Institute publishes studies, reports, and books on timely topics worthy of public consideration. The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders. Copyright of the written materials contained within the Urban Institute website is owned or controlled by the Urban Institute.

Email this Page