This month is National Family Caregivers Month. Each year, November is designated as a time to recognize and honor those who care for ill or disabled loved ones across the country. Spearheaded by the Caregiver Action Network, the annual celebration is intended to “raise awareness of family caregiver issues, celebrate the efforts of family caregivers, educate family caregivers about self-identification, and increase support for family caregivers.”
Today, there are approximately 53 million caregivers in the United States, 42 million of whom care for one or more adults over the age of 50. In fact, family caregivers are the backbone of our long-term care system. AARP estimates that family caregivers provide 34 billion hours of care at a total economic value of $470 billion. To put this in perspective, this is greater than the amount spent on all long-term-care services combined.
The reality is this trend is not expected to lessen, and this undervalued and invisible “army” will continue to grow. As the baby boomers continue to age, we can expect the number of family caregivers to increase steadily over the next few decades. In addition, a critical shortage of healthcare workers will further shift the responsibility of care for elders to their families.
“As the baby boomers continue to age, we can expect the number of family caregivers to increase steadily over the next few decades.”
The most challenging balancing act
Anyone who has provided caregiving knows that it’s complicated. Today’s caregivers are responsible for helping loved ones navigate a complex and fragmented system of support and services while at the same time managing other responsibilities such as work and family. The degree to which someone provides support also varies from family to family.
On average, AARP Research estimates that caregivers provide 20 hours of care per week, with responsibilities ranging from assistance with household chores to providing hands-on personal care. Ironically, many caregivers don’t even view their role as “caregiving.” They see themselves as simply a son or daughter, niece or nephew, spouse or partner who is helping someone they love.
“The negative effects of the stress of caregiving can take a toll on a person’s emotional and physical health, finances and retirement security, social networks and careers.”
Sadly, many caregivers are at risk. Caregiving can cause substantial emotional, physical, and psychological stress, as well as financial strain. The negative effects of the stress of caregiving can take a toll on a person’s emotional and physical health, finances and retirement security, social networks and careers.
Jeopardizing their own financial well-being
A few years ago, I met Sheila, a 52-year-old vice president at a local bank. She was divorced and the primary caregiver for her mother, Mavis, 82, who lived with her. Mavis was in good physical health but had moderate dementia. Sheila was concerned because her mother could not be left alone anymore. In addition, her mother required a great deal of care as she was no longer able to bathe or dress herself or prepare her own meals. Sheila was having a hard time managing the care of her mom while trying to keep up with the demands of her job. Up until this point, Sheila was providing most of the care herself, with occasional help from members of their church.
Sheila was exploring care options for her mom and quickly realized that her mother could not afford to live in a memory care unit in a nearby nursing home. In addition, the cost of a full-time home-health aide during the weekdays would cost over $4,800 per month. Sheila felt this was not something they could afford to do either. In addition, her mom’s monthly income, while modest, disqualified her from the social service benefits of the local social services agency. Sheila felt her only choice was to quit her job and provide the care her mom needed herself. After all, her mom had cared for her as her parent; now it was her time to give back to her mother.
“On average, caregivers spend $7,242 per month of their own savings on out-of-pocket expenses for a loved one.”
Unfortunately, Sheila is not alone. On average, caregivers spend $7,242 per month of their own savings on out-of-pocket expenses for a loved one. In addition, some caregivers, particularly women, decide to leave the workforce to care for a loved one full-time. Often, they do not realize that this decision can put their own future financial well-being in jeopardy. It is estimated that caregivers lose over $300,000 in wages and benefits by leaving the workforce to care for an aging loved one.
Six ways to help support caregiving clients
There are a number of ways that advisors can provide support for caregiving clients. First, it is important to identify those clients who are caregiving. Asking a client about his or her caregiving responsibilities can open the door for future conversations, often when a caregiving situation becomes more challenging and intense. Clients will look to you for advice as they consider decisions that may impact their financial futures.
Another way to support caregiving clients is to become informed about resources available to support older adults in your area. The local area agency on aging (AAA) is a good place to start. Consisting of a network of over 600 agencies throughout the country, AAAs coordinate care and services for older adults living in the community. Many agencies also provide education and support for family caregivers. Locate the agency in your area here.
Information is key. Sometimes caregivers simply need prompting on how to help a loved one. Because the long-term-care system is complicated, many caregivers lack confidence or feel they don’t have the necessary expertise to help a loved one navigate the system. At times, the fear of making a mistake or a “wrong” choice cause some caregivers to avoid taking any action at all. Consider hosting speakers on various caregiving topics that can help your clients better understand the long-term-care landscape.
Despite their huge numbers, many caregivers feel isolated and alone. Building connections for caregivers is also important. As a frequent caregiver workshop facilitator, I am constantly amazed at the support caregivers generously offer one another. Provide opportunities for caregivers to network with one another. While each family situation tends to be unique, the experience gained as a caregiver is invaluable to those facing similar challenges. Caregivers are generous of spirit and often feel compelled to “pay it forward.”
It is also important to help your clients know when to consult with experts. Sometimes distance or work makes it difficult to provide the necessary support to a loved one. Hiring a person with the expertise to help locate appropriate resources and services takes the burden off the caregiver and puts it in the hands of a professional.
Aging Life Care Managers (formerly known as Geriatric Care Managers) can be a valuable resource for caregivers. ALCMs are professionals who help families and older adults navigate important healthcare decisions, such as deciding whether to age in place or relocate to a long-term care facility; coordinating medical care; and being the ‘eyes and ears’ for caregivers. In some cases, having an impartial third party make a recommendation can alleviate possible family tension. Learn more at the Aging Life Care Association.
Finally, consider setting up an aging taskforce within your firm. Educate yourselves on the issues facing older adults and their caregivers. Look around you, too. Chances are some of the employees within the firm have faced their own caregiving situations. They can be an invaluable resource for providing practical expertise. Being a trusted resource for caregiving clients provides a value-added benefit to your clients at a time when there are not many other places to turn.
Molly Prues, a gerontologist, is CEO and founder of VistaLynk, a company that provides education on the issues that impact older age and caregiving clients. VistaLynk’s ground-breaking programs provide the building blocks to reimagine aging and empower caregiving.