Five Trends in Family Caregiving

Related topics: Caregivers, Caregiver Skills, Care for the Caregiver

Elderly man with his adult children

What are the things that make us human? Language, toolmaking and using fire might first come to mind. But caring for our elders is another powerful trait of our species. In early Neanderthal burials, archaeologists have found the skeletons of individuals whose age-related health problems would have made it impossible for them to hunt for food or even walk. Clearly, taking care of our elderly loved ones is hardwired into our species. We love them, and we benefit from the wisdom our oldest family members share with us.

The Family Caregiver Alliance estimates that today, as many as 44 million people in the U.S. are providing care and support to an older parent, spouse or other loved one. And though caring for elders is an age-old tradition, experts say the face of caregiving is changing in several important ways:

1. The number of seniors who need care is skyrocketing … but the pool of caregivers to help them is shrinking fast. In a new report, Families Caring for an Aging America, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine reported that members of the baby boom generation are likely to live well into their 80s and beyond. However, they say, "While the need for caregiving is rapidly increasing, the number of potential family caregivers is shrinking. Current trends in family patterns—including lower fertility, higher rates of childlessness, and increases in divorced and never-married statuses—suggest a shrinking pool of potential caregivers in the near future. Unlike in the past, older adults will have fewer family members to rely on, more likely will be unmarried or divorced and living alone, and may be geographically more distant from their children."

2. Caregivers are more demographically diverse. Not so long ago, the typical caregiver was a middle-aged stay-at-home woman who provided care for an elderly parent or parent-in-law. But in a recent study, Caregiving in the U.S., the AARP reported that today 40 percent of caregivers are male. More millennials (those born between 1976 - 1994) are caring for senior relatives as well. The American Psychological Association reports that over a million children under the age of 18 are caring for a parent, grandparent or other relative. And with an increase in "elder orphans"—seniors with no family members to care for them—more friends are stepping up to help. Today's caregivers come from every cultural group; experts remind us that support services should accommodate their traditions.

3. Many seniors are providing care at an age when they traditionally would have received care. The AARP report found that 10 percent of caregivers today are over age 75. In the past, caregivers who were older were mostly caring for an ill spouse. But today's increased longevity means they're also likely to be providing care support for their own parents! Some retirees and their parents are moving into the same senior living community together. Complicating the caregiving picture a bit, the "sandwich generation" is also making something of a shift. Slightly fewer families are caring for both a young child and an elder—but a study from Pew Research revealed that millennials today are more likely to live with their parents than in any other living arrangement. So, a boomer couple may have a "boomerang child" or two in the home, who they may partially support, but who also can participate in care for grandparents.

4. Caregivers are performing complex medical tasks. Family caregivers in the past were most likely to help their loved one with the activities of daily living—bathing, dressing, eating, going to the toilet, transportation and so forth. But the longevity boost can be credited in part to advances in medical care—and a lot of the day-to-day medical tasks fall on caregivers. They might manage healthcare appointments and medications, even performing what the AARP refers to as medical/nursing tasks, such as monitoring blood sugar, giving medications, wound care, dealing with catheters, and operating complicated medical equipment. Even if their loved one uses home care or lives in a nursing home, caregivers continue to serve an important managerial role.

5. More caregivers are employed, and more employees are caregivers. American companies are taking notice of the rapid increase of employees who are helping care for senior relatives. These employees may feel stretched pretty thin as they juggle their roles! Their careers may suffer as they miss opportunities for advancement and promotion, pass up travel and training and cut back their hours. The MetLife Mature Market Institute estimated that employed caregivers stand to lose up to $600,000 in wages, pensions and Social Security benefits over their lifetime if they leave work prematurely to care for a loved one. And for younger caregivers, providing care can also interfere with their education.

These changes all add up to real challenges for caregivers. Experts call for increased support for caregivers. Let’s start now!

Elderly woman with her adult son

What can caregivers do? If you are a family caregiver, remember that taking care of yourself is an important part of caring for your loved one. Don't hesitate to ask for help from friends and other family members. Learn about services in your community that supplement the care provided by families, such as senior centers, adult day services, respite care, delivered meals programs, professional in-home care, and supportive living communities. If you're experiencing stress and burnout, talk to a counselor. And check out support groups, both in the community and online. Knowing you're not alone, sharing tips and commiseration and the occasional laugh with others who understand what it's like can foster a more meaningful caregiving experience.

What can friends and family do? If one of your family members is serving as the primary caregiver for another, ask what you can do to help. Maybe it's time for a family meeting where everyone can take on more of the practical and financial weight of the elder's care. If you're a friend, offer to stay with the elder while your caregiver friend takes some time for themselves. Maybe you're a great organizer and can help your friend learn more about local senior care options? And if you are an employer with caregiver employees, learn about caregiver-friendly policies, such as flexible hours, working from home, paid time off and eldercare benefits. Your employees not only will be better caregivers, but also will be less stressed and distracted on the job.

What can we all do? Advocate! Supporting caregivers is an important element of a civilized society. If that's not enough incentive, remember that according to the AARP, the value of services provided by unpaid family caregivers is upwards of $470 billion. Remind your national, state and local lawmakers of the big picture: Funding caregiver support programs saves money. These valuable and generous people need greater recognition for all that they do. And on the personal level, we should all plan for care in later years. Few of us can predict whether we will be called upon to provide care, or will experience the need to receive it, but the chances are good that we'll find ourselves in both roles at some time during our lives. How much better to have a plan … along with the sense that our society has our back!

Source: IlluminAge Communication Partners; copyright 2017.

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