Family Caregivers Play a Vital Role in Today's Healthcare System

November is National Family Caregivers Month, an occasion to honor the many people who provide unpaid care for their elderly and disabled loved ones.

Woman with her senior mom on couch

There's a growing recognition of the integral role played by spouses, adult children, grandchildren, siblings and other relatives who step up when seniors needs help. Family caregiving is an important health issue—both for the person receiving care, and for caregivers themselves.

Awareness of caregiver issues is so important. Why? Because, as famously noted by former First Lady Rosalynn Carter, "There are only four kinds of people in the world: those who have been caregivers; those who are currently caregivers; those who will be caregivers; and those who will need caregivers." Here are six things to know:

Their numbers are growing. The Family Caregiver Alliance says that almost 35 million people in the U.S. are caring for an older relative—and with the aging of the baby boomers, more and more seniors will need care from loved ones. Meanwhile, a longer lifespan, smaller families and a higher rate of divorce mean the number of people needing care is set to outpace the number of family members able to provide it. Experts say we'll be facing a real "caregiver crunch" by the year 2030.

Many are employed and/or caring for young children. A Pew Research Center study found that 12% of parents with a minor child at home were also caring for an older relative. And, say Baylor University experts, so are 25% of employed adults. And then there are the people who are wearing all three hats … it's no surprise that they report feeling very torn among their various duties.

Caregivers are doing more and more. An in-depth 2019 study from AARP revealed that millions of caregivers today provide care that would be considered medical and complex—wound care, administering injections, using meters and monitors, and other tasks that were once relegated to nurses. And a majority of these caregivers say they feel woefully unprepared for the task! They don't feel well trained, and they fear making a mistake.

They aren't taking care of their own health. Caregivers can spend so much time focused on their loved one's needs that they neglect their own well-being, even if they have health challenges of their own. Many are at the age when, in previous generations, they would have been receiving care themselves! In October 2019, the American Heart Association noted that the stress of juggling caregiving, work and other family duties can even harm their hearts.

They save our healthcare system a lot of money. Here’s another reason to support these people who do so much. Estimates are that the free labor provided by caregivers would cost upwards of $500 billion if provided by professionals. A study from University of Michigan showed that when overwhelmed caregivers suffer from fatigue, sleep loss and depression, their loved one is more likely to be hospitalized and incur higher Medicare costs.

Caregivers serve an important role, no matter where their loved one lives. Some caregivers support the needs of loved ones who are aging in place in their own homes. Or, their loved one might live with them, perhaps in a multigenerational household. Long-distance caregivers provide care even when their loved ones live zip codes away. And when seniors live in a skilled nursing facility, assisted living or other senior living community, family remain very important—part of that new family, you might say!

Let's advocate for caregivers

Son helps dad in wheelchair

Today, with increased emphasis on understanding and meeting the needs of caregivers, communities are putting support services into place. But there is so much left to do. Said University of Michigan professor Dr. Deborah Levine, "We need to do a better job of identifying and supporting caregivers experiencing distress, in order to help caregivers feel better and hopefully improve outcomes in older adults with disability."

University of Toronto nursing professor Monica Parry, Ph.D., echoes this sentiment: "We are facing an epidemic of caregiver burden. Caregivers cannot remain under-researched, under-diagnosed, under-treated and under-supported."


Source: IlluminAge Communication Partners; copyright 2019 IlluminAge