Most people don't think about who will care for them if their health is compromised by illness, accident, or a degenerative disease. I certainly didn't -- not until my heart gave me a "wake-up call" nearly ten years ago. Since then, I've learned more about healthcare and how people are cared for in America than I ever really wanted to know.
Reading 's story "Why We Must Help Caregivers" in Parade magazine this month reminded me of an op-ed I wrote nearly three years ago on the subject. From what Sheehy had to say about how little has changed since then to , I thought my "old" words bear repeating today.
"Every day in our community, family members are providing many hours of essential care to loved ones who are chronically ill, disabled, or elderly. All too often, they are doing this difficult, emotionally and physically draining work alone.
Even when these family caregivers – most of whom are women who also work outside the home – get some help from their children, friends, or neighbors, the care demands can be relentless. Day after day, their loved ones need dressing, toileting, feeding, medication assistance, doctor visits, and much more when Alzheimer’s and other dementias are involved.
Most people don’t know -- and our politicians in . rarely acknowledge -- that family caregivers provide nearly 87% of all homecare services in the U.S. That amounts to over $350 billion worth of “free” caregiving services each year – more than was spent on all of Medicare in 2002 – according to the National Alliance for Caregiving.
Today, over 44.5 million adults in America are doing caregiving for a family member, 27 million of whom provide at least 20 hours of care each week according to an AARP study.
Over 66% of the care needs of the elderly are provided solely by family members.
By the year 2030, the U.S. projects that 20% of our population will be over 65 years of age, resulting in a total elderly population of more than 70 million people – representing a 102% increase from the year 2003.
Considering that the fastest growing segment of our population is people over 85 years of age – one-half of whom require help with personal care – even more of the responsibilities for caregiving in the future will fall to family members.
What this means for all Americans is that caregiving concerns have moved from being a private family situation to a societal issue. There is a strong connection between the difficulties families are having with meeting caregiving needs of their loved ones and the fact that our healthcare system was never set up to help people live at home with chronic health conditions.
It has been said that there are four kinds of people in the world – those who have been caregivers, those who currently are caregivers, those who will be caregivers, and those who will need caregivers. None of us will be excluded.
So what does this mean for residents of Lane County? Most importantly, to realize that there is a large and growing need for community support of the many family caregivers in our midst. Family caregiving is an issue for all of us!
If you haven’t already done so, it is time to begin conversations with friends and colleagues about eldercare experiences in their families. You may be surprised at how many people have been touched by caring for family members and how deeply caring for loved ones affects their daily lives.
It is time to educate yourself about issues involved in caregiving for the elderly and the health risks it places on family caregivers. A great place to start is the website: www.familycaregiving101.org.
You can begin learning about the financial impact eldercare may have on your own family in the future and explore long-term care insurance options available. Medicare does not currently pay for in-home care (and is unlikely to do so in the future) so families shoulder the full financial burden of costs for caring for elders living at home.
You can start familiarizing yourself with local resources for eldercare and senior services. Take a look at Lane County’s many resources at: www.laneseniorservices.org as well as www.seriousillness.org/lane. Call the care providers and get information to help with your planning for family caregiving.
Not to be forgotten, it is time to reach out to family caregivers who live next door or across the street – either by yourself or with your family, friends, or members of your church.
Typically, family caregivers have difficulty asking for help. You can make it easier for them to both ask for and accept help by offering to do something very specific and non-threatening. Offer a ride to church, to bring a dinner once a week, rake the lawn, shop for groceries, or provide some respite time for the caregiver to take a break for themselves. Make a commitment the family caregiver can count on. Set a time and show up to share the care.
Just a little bit of help can make a big difference to someone in your neighborhood. Don’t wait for the holiday season. Give a caregiving family a gift of recognition and thanks for the heroic work they’re doing each day for their loved ones."
LOCAL NOTE: Partners to Improve End-of-Life Care will soon publish a brochure "If Someone You Love Is Seriously Ill ..." with information and resources for family caregivers. It will be distributed to medical offices and other healthcare locations throughout . Ask for a copy at your doctor's office or request the brochure via e-mail at: www.seriousillness.org/lane.