Who Will Care for the Caretakers?

Who Will Care for the Caretakers?

Many of us are caring for–or know someone who is caring for–a family member, often an aging parent. With 10,000 baby boomers turning 70 every day, caring for this demographic is a growing health care matter, and it’s only time before it becomes a political issue. Let’s take a look at three women and the impact this has had on their lives.

  • Aisha Adkins graduated from college with goals, dreams and a bright future. Ten years later, she’s still living at home. No job or car, no savings or the advanced degree she needs to be competitive in her field. Her mother was diagnosed with early onset dementia and cannot be left alone. For the last decade, Aisha has held the demanding role of caretaker for her mother. Aisha takes care of the house, shops and cooks dinner, then retires to her room around 10pm, when her father gets home. She’s had three dates in three years; she’s completely missing those exciting post-college years when young adults really start to find themselves.
  • Heather Oglesby is a project officer for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.She was 42 when her mother received a dementia diagnosis four years ago. Caring for her mother has stunted her career prospects and weighed on her marriage. She has taken money from her pension plan and refinanced her home to cover her mother’s expenses. “Caregivers are physically, mentally and financially dying,” she told me. “They are a health care crisis in the making.”
  • Heather Boldon dropped her demanding paralegal job nine years ago to take care of her mother. Since then, she has moved in and out of lesser-paying jobs, unable to build financial security. “I’m almost 52, and I’m starting from scratch,” said Ms. Boldon, whose mother has Alzheimer’s disease. “I’ve lost ten years of my life. What’s going to happen to me?”

Aisha and her father understand that her mother will need full-time professional care at some point. But they have no idea how they will pay for it. The Adkinses’ situation may be extreme, stemming from an early onset dementia diagnosis. But even for caregivers who keep a foothold in the labor force, the economic cost can be substantial.

The burden of care is profoundly reshaping lives

Unfortunately, stories about these three women aren’t uncommon. This burden of care is reshaping the lives of millions of Americans. About 15% women and 13% of men 25-54 years old spend time caring for an older relative, according to the Labor Department. For those 55 to 64, the share rises to one in five Americans. Some 20% of these caregivers also have children at home.

Demand for care is growing: Blame it on the boomers

“The boomer generation is living longer than when the safety net was put in place,” said Ai-jen Poo, a co-director of Caring Across Generations, a coalition of advocacy groups. Her organization is pushing to add a benefit to cover care — for older adults, children and sick family members — to the nation’s safety net, alongside Social Security and Medicare.

While men are being forced to step up, Ms. Poo noted that “women, in particular, are bearing the brunt of the burden.” By knocking many women in their prime earning years from the work force, the growing strain from care is weighing down the American economy.

For many, leaving the labor force is not an option

More than 60% of the people caring for an older person work, too; 45% of the caregivers work fulltime. Altogether, American families forgo at least $28.9 billion per year in wages when they take time off to take care of their children or sick relatives, according to a study issued in 2016 by the liberal Center for American Progress.

Burden of care only starting to seep into political conversations

The burden of care has not become a political concern with the urgency of health care policy; it is mostly absent from proposals by candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination. But it is seeping into the conversation. Senator Bernie Sanders’s Medicare for All proposal includes a benefit for long-term care. Senator Elizabeth Warren supports universal child care, which she has proposed to finance with a wealth tax. In 2016, Hillary Clinton made this part of her platform, by giving tax credits to those who were taking care of family members.

Ms. Poo argues that it is only a matter of time before care becomes a political priority. “There is no feasible way in this economy that people can manage care without more institutional support,” she said. It most likely will become a political issue and it will end up being a women’s issue.

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