Extending our understanding of informal care provision in mid-life in the UK by linking qualitative and quantitative data in the NCDS

Lead Research Organisation: University of Southampton
Department Name: Sch of Economic, Social & Political Sci


The provision of informal care in mid-life is an issue of critical policy importance in the context of an ageing population. Much of the previous literature in this area has mapped the patterns of informal care provision across different age groups in the UK (Evandrou et al 2015; Pickard et al, 2000), and highlighted the importance of investigating the characteristics of informal care provision, such as its intensity and the relationship between the carer and the person they are caring for (Vlachantoni, 2010). At the same time, research using qualitative methods has focused on understanding the motivations of caregivers, and their own perspective on the impact that the caring activity has on their lives (Greenwood et al, 2016). However, to-date there has been little research combining data from qualitative and quantitative data in order to obtain a deeper understanding of caring in mid-life, and the links between carers' narratives about their life history, identity and perceptions about social participation with a range of demographic, health and socio-economic characteristics, as well as the particular features of the caring activity itself among carers.

The proposed project aims to exploit the National Child Development Study, a cohort study of individuals born in 1958, who were interviewed at age 50. The study will combine qualitative and quantitative methods in order to investigate how carers in mid-life understand social participation, how such perceptions differ among carers of different intensity (number of hours per week) and among non-carers; the association between the carers' perceptions of social participation and their key demographic and socio-economic characteristics; the provision of informal care towards parents or parents-in-law at age 50 related to particular influences or turning points during the carers' life course (eg. unemployment) and the provision of informal care associated with carers' identity in other ways (eg. gender and social class).

The project's output and analysis aims to contribute to the evidence base in the area of informal care provision in mid-life, and to the future design of social policies aimed at supporting informal carers. This is particularly important as caring in mid-life is becoming a more common experience for individuals, and social policies are needed and relied upon for supporting informal carers in their roles. In addition, understanding the impact of the caregiving role on the carer's circumstances, behaviour and resources, is also of paramount importance, as caregiving in mid-life for one's parents is often combined with other roles or demands during this part of the life course, such as paid work and being a parent or grandparent. The project's findings will be shared throughout the life of the research with Carers UK, and feed into debates of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Carers in the form of an accessible Policy Briefing publication. The findings will also be disseminated at a knowledge exchange workshop in collaboration with AgeUK, as well as through presentations at national and international scientific meetings, and through Discussion Papers and peer-reviewed journal articles.

Planned Impact

The ESRC Secondary Data Analysis scheme is aimed at producing high-impact and policy-relevant research through the exploitation of existing data resources, and the proposed research will deliver such impact in five distinct ways:

Firstly, by utilising the National Child Development Study, the proposed research will directly contribute to the maximisation of existing ESRC data resource investments. Through the secondary analysis of the qualitative and quantitative parts of the dataset, the project will also contribute to another of the ESRC's priorities in the form of the expansion of the UK's skills base in quantitative data analysis, as the Co-I is an experienced quantitative researcher and the PI has extensive experience of both quantitative and qualitative techniques.

Secondly, the project is aimed at investigating a topic area with crucial policy implications, as the UK population is simultaneously ageing and the prevalence of informal care provision in mid-life is increasing. The investigation of carers' circumstances and perspectives, and our understanding of the ways in which particular characteristics or perceptions are associated with the activity of care provision, will strengthen the evidence base which can inform future social policy design aimed at supporting carers.

Thirdly, from a methodological viewpoint, the project will develop our understanding of mixed methods secondary data analysis using a cohort dataset. Existing analysis of this dataset relating to informal care provision has not exploited the qualitative dataset in the survey, and this project can provide important insights for future research. In addition, the project will provide the basis for linking quantitative information from previous waves of the survey (e.g. when the respondents were aged 42 or younger) with quantitative and qualitative information when the respondents were aged 50.

Fourthly, the research is aimed at facilitating knowledge exchange between members of the academic community (eg. at the scientific meetings), between academics and key policy stakeholders in the area of informal care provision in mid-life (eg. Carers UK), and between academics and the wider public (eg. Age UK, Southampton Pensioners Forum). Through a strategy which includes peer-reviewed academic outputs, a Knowledge Exchange Workshop, two Discussion Papers and a Policy Briefing which will be widely distributed in electronic and hard-copy format, the project will engage users (carers), stakeholders and academics alike, with a view to making a high impact on the debate in this area.

Finally, by combining a more experienced researcher (the PI) with two Early Career Researchers (the Co-I and the Research Assistant), the project will address the ESRC's core priority of developing capacity both in quantitative data analysis in the Social Sciences and in developing the necessary skills for a research or academic professional trajectory, at the same time as utilising a key data resource which represents a significant investment for the ESRC.


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Description This project aimed at using mixed methods in order to explore the characteristics and impact of informal care provision in mid-life, and understanding the carers' perspectives in terms of how their caring activity interacts with their life and wellbeing. The project resulted in two main findings, firstly referring to the interaction between informal care provision and economic activity; and secondly, the interaction between informal care provision and social participation.

In terms of the first finding, informal care provision is a time-consuming activity, which may have negative effects on the carers' economic activity patterns, rendering the investigation of such mechanisms crucial for the design of social policy. Although existing research has identified a range of factors, which are related to the carers' decision to reduce their economic activity, nevertheless the perspective of carers themselves is often lacking from such investigations. This part of the analysis combined quantitative multivariate analysis on a sample of 2,233 carers from Wave 8, while qualitative analysis drew upon in-depth interviews of 48 identified carers from the same sample. Quantitative results indicate that, among individuals who provided care, being female, single/never-married, frequently meeting one's parent, reporting poor health, and being an employee (other than supervisor or manager) were associated with a higher risk of reducing one's economic activity, while feeling that one is 'just about getting by' financially, compared with describing one's financial situation as difficult, was associated with a lower risk of reducing one's economic activity. Qualitative analysis provided corroboration and in-depth explanation for the quantitative results, and distinguished between four key factors affecting the carers' economic activity decisions: family structure, value and identity, care intensity and life course events and trajectories. The findings of this study contribute to the existing literature of understanding the carers' decision around care and economic activity, by confirming, enhancing and complementing existing theory in this area.

In terms of the second area of focus, we investigated the relationship between social participation and health outcomes between caregivers and non-caregivers in the UK. Although caregivers generally reported better health than non-caregivers, the intensity of care provision could have further adverse impact on the caregivers' health, while social participation could have a protective role in this respect. Using qualitative and quantitative data from wave 8 of the study, which was conducted in 2008, the analysis shows that social participation has a positive effect on the carers' mental health and subjective wellbeing measured through a 14-item measure of Control, Autonomy, Self-realisation, and Pleasure (CASP-14). Individuals who did not engage in social participation reported lower level of mental health and CASP than those engaged in social participation. From the qualitative results, the barriers to social participation of caregivers were: time, energy and finance.
Exploitation Route The findings will be of interest both to researchers working in the area of informal care provision and how it interacts with individuals' lives, but also interest groups aimed at improving the welfare of older people and of informal carers. For example, the finding that engaging in social participation has benefits for the mental health of informal carers can inform the design of services aimed at supporting informal carers, such as respite care. The findings are also of interest to researchers using mixed methods employing the analysis of secondary data (qualitative and quantitative), as well as researchers interest in cohort studies more broadly.
Sectors Healthcare,Government, Democracy and Justice

Description As a result of the regular contact between the research team and colleagues in AgeUK, key findings emerging from the research have been informing discussions about policy priorities within AgeUK. In addition, the PI (Vlachantoni) was invited to submit evidence to the House of Lords Select Committee on Intergenerational Fairness and Provision (16/10/2018), sharing key findings from the project in relation to the balance between paid work and caring obligations in mid-life. Finally, the project's key findings were shared with the Ageing Analysis Team, Centre for Ageing and Demography at the Office for National Statistics in Titchfield, feeding into relevant research conducted by the ONS in the area of paid work and care provision.
First Year Of Impact 2018
Sector Communities and Social Services/Policy
Impact Types Societal,Policy & public services

Description Collaboration in designing the research and disseminating research findings with AgeUK 
Organisation Age UK
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution AgeUK is a key partner in this project. Our research team have had meetings with AgeUK staff members to discuss the analysis plan, priorities in terms of the research objectives and policy-relevant questions, and plans for dissemination.
Collaborator Contribution AgeUK is providing ongoing feedback to the analysis plan and preliminary analysis findings.
Impact AgeUK continues to be a close partner of the Centre for Research on Ageing in the University of Southampton. For example, AgeUK is a partner in another successful application by the University of Southampton to the ESRC SDAI fund, focusing on informal carers.
Start Year 2017
Description Collaboration with AgeUK 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Third sector organisations
Results and Impact Since the beginning of this project, the research team has been in regular contact with colleagues at AgeUK (London) to discuss preliminary results, the overall direction of the research, as well as to plan the dissemination of the key findings to non-academic audiences. The research team led by Vlachantoni (PI) included Feng (Co-I), Evandrou, Falkingham and Wang (Research Fellow); the AgeUK team included Marcus Green (until 2018 when he left AgeUK), Libby Archer and Libby Webb, as well as colleagues in the AgeUK policy team. The regular communication encouraged the research team to consider specific policy-relevant questions in the analysis which are in line with key policy priorities on the part of AgeUK, for example the interaction between economic activity and care provision across the life course and specifically in later life.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018,2019