America's Mounting Caregiver Crisis
AARP has released dramatic data about the impact of an aging population on family members and professionals that serve as caregivers.
The organization's study confirmed what is already well-known to many adult sons and daughters: the work of caring for aging loved ones in need of assistance is largely done by their adult children. And as our population demographics swing older, this increasingly will be the reality -- and challenge -- for more of us.
Within 15 years, 20 percent of America will be senior citizens; (As recently as 1950,only seven
percent of the population was 65 or older. Family members have traditionally been the "first responders" of elder care. The typical family caregiver is usually employed and still supporting children (hence the term "sandwich generation"). How many of us adults would that describe? Nearly half.
Yet few of us are properly trained, or emotionally prepared, for the stress and strain of doing so, and the consequences that result. It is now well documented that family caregivers increasingly sufferfrom depression, stress, headaches and sleepless nights. The financial impact also is quite devastating for but also the companies that employ them. Indeed, lost productivity from full-time employees with elder care obligations is estimated at a staggering $33.6 billion.
When today's care-providing adults need help themselves, their options will be limited. Families are simply not as large as they once were. While today there are seven potential caregivers forevery senior over the age of 79, that ratio is predicted to drop to 3 or 4 to 1 by 2030. That means more of us will be compelled to seek help from professional caregivers, either in the home or at a nursing facility.
Alarmingly, the existing healthcare workforce is ill-prepared for the continued graying of America. As in-home caregivers lack the standard minimum pay protections provided under the Minimum Age Act enacted in the seventies, most of the millions working as nurse aides and caregivers earn less than $25,000 annually and lack any specialized training to manage geriatric health issues, the Brookings Institute has warned. At a time when demand for their services is rising, there are few economic incentives to attract more qualified professional caregivers and limited resources available to help them succeed.
Fortunately, government and industry are slowly waking up to the challenges. On the legislative front, progress can be seen at both the federal and state level, though with varying degrees of success. The Obama Administration had been working to remove minimum wage and overtime exemptions for in-home caregivers, but was temporarily thwarted as home care worker agencies successfully challenged the proposed amendment in court. Some states have picked up the slack, providing the requisite pay minimums themselves. Organizations such as AARP, the Domestic Workers Alliance, and other advocates for the elderly and their caregivers have done an admirable job pressing for fair pay.
As the Baby Boomers continue to swell the ranks of our senior population, elder care concerns will impact more and more families. It's a global trend in dire need of solutions. While we are beginning to see positive steps, we still have a long way to go.