It’s a crisis as invisible as it is inevitable: As America’s population ages, more people are grappling with the problem of how to care for elderly family members.
But few people are financially or emotionally prepared, and many suffer without support because they don’t know where to turn – or even how to acknowledge their situation.
Those were among the themes that emerged from “New Challenges and New Conversations: Caregiving in the 21st Century,” a conference put on recently by Transamerica and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s AgeLab.
"Right now, someone one you know – a co-worker, a colleague, someone you support, someone who manages you, a friend, a family member, a neighbor – someone, even many of us in this room, are silent caregivers,” said Ronnie Mae Weiss, senior program manager at the MIT Work-Life Center. “They are boomers, Gen-Xers, millennials, and they are providing caregiving to a spouse, partner, a sibling, a neighbor, a parent, a grandparent. So that’s really what we’re here to discuss today.”
About 40 million Americans are caregivers, according to a 2017 Merrill Lynch/Age Wave study discussed at the conference.1 But many people don’t acknowledge themselves as such.
“We show pictures of our children and grandchildren,” Weiss said. “People aren't showing pictures and expressing everyday needs of the people they are taking care of.”
While their work can be invisible, the toll can be significant.
Six in 10 caregivers report having to make a workplace accommodation as a result of caregiving, such as cutting back on work hours, according to a 2015 report by AARP and the National Alliance for Caregiving.2 Another AARP report, based on a survey from 2016, said caregivers spent more than $7,400 a year of their own money on care.3 And with 10,000 baby boomers retiring every day, and living longer in part because of efforts to fight heart disease, the issues will only grow.4, 5
Joseph Coughlin, director of the MIT AgeLab, said in an interview many people think caregiving as mostly a physical act.
“And in many ways, it is,” he said. “But it's also very emotional. It is financial. It is logistics, transportation, getting the appliances fixed and groceries delivered.”
Some people get to grow into it when a loved one starts to need help slowly, Coughlin said, but “for many, it happens at the blink of an eye: A fall that results in a broken hip. A stroke. Hospitalization from a disease. So not only is it inevitable and we're not prepared for it and we don't know what it is, the switch to become a caregiver often happens instantaneously.”
But there’s no trusted source to provide definitive information or guidance on all the aspects of caregiving, he told the audience.
Some assistance may arrive from technology, speakers suggested. Preparation also can help. Coughlin said a good first step might be to make a list of how caregiving should unfold – then start matching possible needs to people or services who will fulfill them.
Author Liz O’Donnell, who shared her story of how her father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease on the same day her mother found she had ovarian cancer, said future caregivers should focus on careers while they can so they can have flexibility later.
“The other thing is to start having conversations with our parents,” she said in an interview. “It's a really uncomfortable conversation to have.” However, she said, it can tactfully be presented as a discussion about long-term goals for next phase of life with an offer to help parents reach those goals.
Caregiving is extremely difficult, she acknowledged to the audience.
“I think people know that it’s going to be hell,” she said, “but it's going to be worth it, and if we can start to solve for it, we can make it a better experience.”
Things to Consider:
- Be aware that caregiving has financial, emotional and other costs.
- Individuals can start making plans for how they want to be cared for.
- Adult children can start conversations with their parents about their care.
Transamerica is a sponsor of the MIT AgeLab.
1 “The Journey of Caregiving: Honor, Responsibility and Financial Complexity.” Merrill Lynch /Age Wave, 2017
2 “Caregiving in the U.S. 2015,” National Alliance for Caregiving and the AARP Public Policy Institute
3 “Surprising Out-of-Pocket Costs for Caregivers” AARP, October 2019
4 “Baby Boomers Are Staying in the Labor Force,” Pew Research Center, July 2019
5 “Two Hundred Years of Health and Medical Care: The Importance of Medical Care for Life Expectancy Gains,” National Bureau of Economic Research, December 2018
This article was prepared by the American Heart Association (AHA). Transamerica is not affiliated with the AHA and does not control, guarantee, or endorse the information. This information does not constitute the practice of medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always talk to your healthcare provider for diagnosis and treatment, including your specific medical needs. If you have or suspect that you have a medical problem or condition, please contact a qualified health care professional immediately. If you are in the United States and experiencing a medical emergency, call 911, or call for emergency medical help immediately.
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