As time passes, caregivers will need greater recognition, acceptance, and support from all parts of our society.
In Part 1, I presented an op-ed I wrote, which was published in The Charlotte Observer on November 26, 2002. In Part 2, I discuss how far our society has –– or hasn’t –– come in supporting unpaid family caregivers.
In the 19 years since I wrote that Charlotte Observer op-ed (see Part 1), much has changed in the demographics and social dynamics regarding informal (i.e., family) caregiving in the United States.
For one thing, as experts predicted, the number of people caring for family members and friends on an unpaid basis has exploded. A projected 39 million caregiving households in 2007 increased 23% by 2019. Then came the COVID pandemic. According to AARP:
“Pre-COVID, there were 48 million family caregivers across the country. Then, according to a Genworth study, one in three Americans became caregivers practically overnight . . .carving out time to care for children who can’t go to school or daycare, older family members who now need extra help, or dependents of front-line workers. And, in a big change from what we’ve seen in the past, they are identifying as caregivers, and they are being open about the difficulties they face.”
In case you’re wondering, from 2019 to 2021, the number of family caregivers more than doubled from 1 in 7. Check out the math:
48 million family caregivers (2019 total population: 329 million) = 14.6%
109 million family caregivers (2021 total population: 332 million) = 32.8%
And, according to that Genworth study cited by AARP, informal caregiving during COVID added between 9 and 18 hours (the equivalent of one or two work shifts) to the AARP-assessed weekly average of 27.3 hours of care. And let’s not forget the average annual out-of-pocket costs ($7,000 to $12,000 in 2019) to caregivers incurred on behalf of their care recipients.
To these pressures we must include caregivers’ own physical and emotional struggles to remain safe from COVID, as well as keep their jobs and income (provided they still have them).
Even with the establishment in 2000 of the National Family Caregiver Support Program, most caregivers were uninformed about the various supports available to them and how to receive them. That lack of adequate widespread communication exists to this day.
The bottom line: Millions more Americans are spending lots more time, energy, and resources caring for loved ones of all ages without consistent, broad-based financial or social support. In a nation that touts the basic values of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” such neglect of family caregivers is not only hypocritical; it’s economically unsustainable. Not to mention immoral.
And that’s what hasn’t changed about caregiving.
However, in the midst of the pandemic –– and perhaps even more because of it –– the future holds some hope.
The American Rescue Plan enacted in March provided 14 weeks of paid sick and family and medical leave for caregivers of COVID family members, out-of-school children, and residents of temporarily closed long-term-care facilities.
The American Families Plan announced in April by the White House calls for the creation of “a national comprehensive paid family and medical leave program.” While the plan’s details have yet to be finalized, the prioritizing of informal care is an important step toward recognizing and supporting the many challenges family caregivers face.
The Credit for Caring Act introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives in May 2019 and in the U.S. Senate in May of this year would provide thousands of dollars in federal tax credits annually for working family caregivers.
But there’s still more that our government and businesses can –– and should –– do. Women especially need more support, since they continue to provide the majority (61%) of unpaid caregiving. Considering that women in 2020 made an average of 84 cents for every dollar earned by male workers, this gender wage gap impacts women’s lifetime Social Security benefits as well.
The economic toll on caregivers shouldn’t be allowed to happen, considering that unpaid caregiving saves our national economy more than half a trillion dollars each year.
And a price can't be put on their physical or psychological toll.
Although it’s been 17 years since I ceased being a primary family caregiver, memories of the often overwhelming burden I endured flood my mind whenever I hear or read the stories of others on similar journeys, such as one recent Washington Post opinion piece by Stacy Torres, who writes:
“All those years of unpaid work trail me in the zero years entered into my Social Security benefit calculations, reducing my lifetime benefit and delaying my own retirement. My student loans ballooned as an expensive two-year graduate program stretched into five. My physical health also suffered. I was diagnosed with an autoimmune condition as my father underwent radiation and chemotherapy.”
Toward the end of her essay, Torres says, “to care for our families, we need to do more than rely on the devalued paid and unpaid labor of women.” I would also add “of men,” because anyone who is a devoted caregiver is vulnerable to irreparable physical, emotional, and financial wounds for their efforts.
The reality is that, as time passes and people live longer, more of us will be playing that role and will need greater recognition, acceptance, and support from all parts of our society: family, friends, neighbors, religious communities, nonprofits, businesses, and governments.
Now more than ever, it’s important to ask ourselves, “Who cares about caregiving?”
Let’s hope we increasingly come up with as many answers as possible.