As families across our Nation gather to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday, it is fitting that November also marks National Family Caregivers Month, which recognizes the efforts of those who provide essential care for their loved ones on a daily basis. In proclaiming Family Caregivers Month, President Barack Obama observed that this commemoration not only allows the country “to pay tribute to those who provide for the health and well-being of their family members, friends, and neighbors … [and who] strengthen the fabric of our Nation by lifting each other up in the face of life’s greatest challenges,” it also offers an opportunity to “thank these tireless heroes for the long, challenging work they perform behind closed doors and without fanfare every day.”
The theme for the month has been “Family Caregivers – Now More than Ever,” and the most recent statistics bear this out. As our population rapidly ages, the number of Americans caring for a loved one with a disability, chronic condition, or the frailties of advanced age significantly increases. It is estimated that there are 90 million family caregivers in the U.S. today, with two out of every five adults serving in this important role. This means that nearly 40% of all adult Americans are caregivers, an increase of 10% in only the past three years.
Many diverse factors are driving this trend. First, our population is getting older. The most recent census, conducted in 2010, revealed not only that there are now more Americans age 65 and above than at any other time in U.S. history, but also that this age group grew at a faster pace during the prior decade than the total population. Moreover, the 65-and-older set is expected to increase even more rapidly over the next decade as more baby boomers start to turn 65 and as new medical advances continue to extend life expectancy. However, as life expectancy increases, so do the risks of experiencing cognitive decline. Alzheimer’s disease alone accounts for more than 15 million family caregivers who provide care to more than 5 million suffering from this affliction. It is estimated that by 2025, those age 65 and older with Alzheimer’s will reach 7.1 million – a 40 percent increase from current levels.
Caregiving, however, is not limited to the elderly. Parents also provide caregiving to children with special needs, a number which is growing as various childhood conditions also increase. Further, roughly 1 million caregivers are providing assistance in their homes to wounded veterans from battles in Iraq and Afghanistan, and who are suffering from serious physical wounds, limb amputations, traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder or other illnesses.
Accordingly, family caregiving is not an easy task. Nearly half of family caregivers perform acts usually done by nurses and other medical personnel, including operating medical equipment, providing wound care and administering multiple medications. This translates into roughly $450 billion worth of unpaid care each year, an amount which exceeds total Medicaid funding, and is twice as much as homecare and nursing home services combined. It is therefore no wonder that family caregivers are often considered to be the “backbone” of our country’s long-term care system.
Although providing care for a loved one affects all demographic groups, studies reveal that the role of caregiver occurs most frequently among adults ages 30 to 64, a group which largely remains in the workforce during that period. This presents its own set of challenges, as the caregiver attempts to balance the responsibilities of work against the demands of caregiving and multiple trips to hospitals and emergency rooms. Indeed, one recent study showed that female caregivers were more likely than men to completely exit the workforce to perform caregiving duties.
Family caregivers provide more than 80% of our country’s long-term care for those unable to care for themselves. On this day of giving thanks, let us remember with special appreciation those who undertake this important task and give of themselves on a daily basis.