According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 40.4 million Americans provide elder care with no pay, and nearly half of them are employed full-time, providing care ‘on the side.’ The majority of these people are women (57%), and the vast majority of them provide care for someone who does not live in their home (83%).
They are, of course, the family caregivers of the United States, providing care for their aging parents and grandparents while they do their best to hold down a life for themselves. They have almost no support from the government or any charity, and they struggle daily to balance the demands of work, home and this third burden that no one seems to be talking about.
They often switch jobs, take time off, or lose wages due to the time spent caring for their honored elders. In fact, one study showed that the loss in compensation amounts to upwards of a few hundred thousand dollars over a lifetime.
Caregiving for an aging parent tends to begin in the late 40s, at a time when it is starting to become dangerous for a career-oriented worker to show signs of ‘slipping’. This, in turn, hurts their ability to save (or in many cases, pay the bills in the first place); making it more likely that they will pass the burden onto their children once they reach an age where they require caregiving.
It seems that America is too caught up in other work/family issues; from the affordability of childcare to the need for paid parental leave, the elder care issue does not register on any national level of discourse. The fundamental assumption is that sick family members are not really “your” responsibility; they can take care of themselves or rely on a medical facility to care for them.
We speak of the need for parental leave, but we ignore the fact that (at least according to 6 in 10 Americans) it is more difficult to take care of an 80+ year-old than it is to take care of a toddler. The simple fact is that our honored elders are much more difficult to care for, and there are several reasons why:
Changing a baby’s diaper is a snap. But helping a lurching, unsteady, full-sized human being move onto and off of the toilet (and cleaning them up afterwards) causes millions of dollars in health care costs every year due to muscle strain and ruptured ligaments.
It is not true that most elderly people are snappish, bickering geezers, but it does not need to be. There is already immense psychological strain inherent in the role-reversal that comes with taking care of the person who has taken care of you for your whole life.
People who have never performed any amount of elder care seem to think that caring for a venerable loved one consists mostly of doing the shopping, cooking some meals, and picking up the place. But most of our elderly need something significantly more; they need your attention, which means they need your time.
It is not unusual for a family caregiver to spend two out of three caregiving hours talking, listening, and engaging with their loved one. This is something their loved one absolutely needs to maintain a high quality of life. Even if you hire a caregiver, your honored elders do not want to spend hours chatting with them; they want you.
The Future of Elder Care
Every day, about 10,000 Americans turn 65. According to AARP, the American elderly will need more than 5.7 million caretakers by 2030. However, that estimate is well below the real numbers, because there are more than 40 million Americans providing unpaid elder care today.
The economic impact of all of those hours not worked, of all of those bills accumulating while our massive group of unpaid elder care providers offers their time and energy to their loved ones, is incalculable. And when people are currently sacrificing their future wealth by spending their time caring for their honored elders rather than working and saving, the problem is only going to compound.
The future of elder care in America looks grim, which is why we need to make this topic a part of the national conversation. If we do not start addressing the massive amount of sacrifice made by middle-aged Americans for the benefit of their aging loved ones, we can expect to see an entirely new generation of poor elderly adults within a few decades. And that is a scenario in which no one wins.