Family caregivers are among America’s unsung heroes.
Today, an estimated 65.7 million Americans, or nearly 30 percent of the general population, provide unpaid care to an older adult or a younger person living with illness or disability. These family caregivers devote enormous time, energy and resources to ensure their loved one can remain living with dignity in familiar surroundings.
Research shows that nearly 90 percent of people age 65 and older want to stay in their homes and communities for as long as possible. Many older adults rely on family or friend caregivers for the support to make that possible. Those family caregivers are the foundation of long-term care nationwide.
In the U.S., the majority of long-term care is provided by unpaid family caregivers allowing many people who have high care needs to age in place instead of moving to a nursing home or other long-term care facility.
According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, the value of family caregivers’ service exceeds Medicaid long-term care spending in all 50 states.
This unpaid care ranges from tasks like helping with meals, shopping, personal care, finance management, household chores and transportation to managing complex healthcare issues.
Serving as a caregiver can exact a heavy toll—emotionally, physically and financially—for the person assuming this role. The average age of a caregiver is 48, a time when often they are still raising a family and actively employed. Add the role of caregiver to the mix and many people feel unprepared and overwhelmed.
A 2016 report from the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine found that people caring for elderly family members on average devote 253 hours a month to caregiving — almost the equivalent of two full-time jobs. Five years is the median duration that family members care for older adults with high needs.
The Academies’ report says lost wages and benefits average $303,880 over the lifetimes of people 50 and older who stop working to care for a parent.
Caregivers often forgo or postpone medical care for themselves putting their own health at risk. Some studies show 30% or more of caregivers die before their care recipient. Illness that doesn't lead to death is also high among caregivers, as is depression.
To honor these unsung heroes, the federal government designates November as National Family Caregiver month. It is a time to recognize the impact of caregiving and honor the millions of caregivers who provide unpaid care to an adult or child with a disability each year.
The theme for the 2017 observance is “Caregiving Around the Clock” recognizing that for many, caregiving is a 24-hours a day/7-days a week responsibility.
As you gather with family this holiday season, consider the family caregivers in your life. Check in with relatives and friends who provide care for older family members and younger people with disabilities. Offer to spend time with their care recipient so the caregiver can take a break. Ask for specific things you can do to make their load lighter.
Consider helping the caregiver make a list of what they do, noting what could be done by other family or friends and what could be provided through a paid service at least on a periodic basis. And, if possible, offer to contribute to the cost of that paid service. Prioritizing the list can help caregivers articulate the scope of their caregiving role and help you and others know how to help.
Gently remind caregivers they need to look after themselves first. The holidays are a good time to enlist the support of others, as long as you can keep the caregiver from feeling “ganged up on.” If there are concerns about the caregiver’s physical or psychological health, don’t ignore the warning signs: take action before it’s too late.
Area Agencies on Aging (AAAs) around the nation provide direct support to caregivers, primarily through the National Family Caregiver Support Program. Services may include respite care; individual counseling and support groups; caregiver education classes/training; and emergency assistance.
AAAs also provide crucial information and assistance, connecting families with local providers who can help create a caregiving plan, address specific challenges, or identify support services available to meet their needs.
To find an Area Agency on Aging near your loved one, call the Elder Care Locator at (800) 677-1116 or visit www.eldercare.gov.