Caring for caregivers

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Some of my favorite childhood memories involve hiking in the Genesee River bed near Mt. Morris with my mother. We would spend hours looking for arrowheads, studying rock formations, or tracking deer. I still get a chuckle when I’m reminded of how unconventional she was compared to my friends’ mothers.

Now much of my time with my mother is spent searching for an important document she has misplaced, taking her to doctors' appointments, or worrying if she’s all right when she doesn’t answer the phone. My mother, who is nearly 80, still lives on her own. But like most caregivers, I can see the future: her care will require even more time, and the stress will only increase.

The physical, emotional, and financial costs to caregivers are seldom discussed in the national health care conversation, despite a graying population that’s living longer. More than 65 million Americans are primary caregivers to sick, elderly, or disabled family members, friends, and neighbors. And the value of the services they provide is estimated to top $450 billion this year, according to a Washington Post article.

More than 60 percent of caregivers are women, and 30 percent of them have children and grandchildren who also need their support. The average amount of time caregivers devote to caring for someone else is about 20 hours a week, and 47 percent report dipping into their retirement savings prematurely for financial assistance.

Caregivers may be getting some overdue support from Washington lawmakers. Legislation was introduced in the Senate this year that would provide a federal tax credit to assist with the costs of caring for an aging family member. Another option, says John Schall, head of the National Family Caregivers Association, is offering Social Security credits to full-time caregivers.

“If we’re serious about reducing health-care costs, we have to invest in family caregiving,” Schall says.

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