Every day a silent army of 41 million American caregivers goes about their undeclared second job of bathing, feeding, dressing, and otherwise caring for a loved one who is aged, ill, or disabled. The work is unpaid, under-appreciated, and exhausting. Caregiving is often dismissed as a private matter, not a political one. That has to change. Just as we now demand that our presidential and other candidates take a stand on health care, environmental issues, and income inequality, we must insist that they speak to the needs of the millions of Americans who are facing the consequences of caring for a loved one with too little support.
Not a private issue
The impact of family caregiving spills over into our economy and society in ways that few of us realize. On Nov. 14 of this year, AARP released an update to “Valuing the Invaluable,” a comprehensive report on family caregiving. It noted that American caregivers clock in at an estimated 34 billion hours of care annually. The staggering monetary value of this invisible work is approximately $470 billion. The report also warned that inadequate support for caregivers places families in dire financial jeopardy. In 2016, caregivers incurred an average of $7,000 per year in out-of-pocket costs.
Family caregivers can’t specialize in caregiving. The 60 percent of family caregivers who also work at part or full-time jobs must often miss work, and suspend or leave careers which ushers in short and long-term financial harm that impacts everyone, according to “Valuing the Invaluable.” A 2011 Gallup report estimated “that the cost of lost productivity due to absenteeism among full-time working caregivers is more than $25 billion annually. This estimate climbs above $28 billion when part-time caregivers are included.”
Research has consistently found that caregivers experience higher levels of chronic stress than non-caregivers. “Stress in America: Our Health at Risk,” a 2012 report released by the American Psychological Association revealed that “caregivers report being in poorer health than the rest of the nation, with higher rates of high cholesterol, high blood pressure, overweight/obesity and depression.” The impact of these stressors on productivity, increased health care costs, financial stability, and loneliness has yet to be fully studied, but it’s reasonable to suspect that they are significant and compounding.
A new view of caregivers is needed—one that doesn’t see them—us—as saints and martyrs, but as valuable and engaged forces in our communities. As the environmental crisis forces us to re-think our way of life, caregivers just may prefigure the kinds of communities of care,, support, and reciprocity needed to respond to some of our most complex problems.
The coming crisis
With an aging population and families having fewer children, the burden of caregiving is going to increase. From “Valuing the Invaluable: “In 2010, there were 7.1 potential family caregivers for every person age 80+. By 2030, there may be only 4.1 potential caregivers for every person 80+.”
Caring Across Generations, an organization that advocates for caregivers and those in need of care, recently conducted a survey of 1,510 adults. The results showed that 66 percent of respondents have no money set aside for future needs. Fifty-three percent expect to care for their elderly parents, but 35 percent said they could not move them into their home do so.
We are moving toward a time when most American families will be required to provide care. Given the broad social and economic toll of caregiving, everyone stands to be impacted by this expanded demand. The trend is clear, and we now have an opportunity to avert crisis by building robust public resources for caregivers. This starts by demanding that our candidates take the issue seriously and that, as voters, we take caregiving seriously as it is an inevitable life role that will impact our families
The three questions that every candidate should be asked about caregiving
Just as society has demanded that our policy makers reform our health care system in the face of medical bankruptcy, skyrocketing cost, and inequitable treatment, we must now insist that they address the challenges of caregivers.
The movement toward health care reform and any number of other political actions has shown that when Americans unite to address a common need they can change the public conversation and compel their representatives to respond. There is much work to be done on strengthening the current public infrastructure for family caregivers and the task ahead will not be easy. We can begin by making the concerns of caregivers a public issue, not a private concern. As an election year approaches every candidate should be asked about his or her position on caregiving.
Three specific questions should be put to them. The first comes from Caring Across Generations. When they polled their audience on which question they would most like to ask the candidates it was the clear winner.
- Families everywhere are facing the blessings and burdens of caregiving for loved ones who live longer and have greater care needs and more chronic conditions than ever. How can we creatively address the physical and financial burdens of caregiving so the caregivers of today do not imperil the health and financial futures of themselves and their loved ones?
- Will you support the creation of a new federal program in which Americans can proactively pay into and access as needed?
- What do you see as the greatest challenge facing the 41 million Americans providing care and how would you address it?
The need for care is not a partisan issue, but care is always political because it impacts all aspects of our private and public lives. It is time for elected representatives to notice the quiet army of caregivers and commit to aiding them so we can better prepare ourselves and our communities for the care challenges that cut across party lines.
Zachary White, PhD., is an Associate Professor of Communication at Queens University of Charlotte. Along with Donna Thomson, he is the author of The Unexpected Journey of Caring: The Transformation from Loved One to Caregiver.