One of the biggest trends influencing people in the United States today – and one that gets shockingly little attention considering the huge swath of the population it affects – is the rise in caregiving. As the large population of baby boomers reaches their senior years, they’re beginning to need greater help and care from loved ones, hired caregivers, or a combination of both.
How Many Caregivers Are There in the United States?
The AARP estimates that there are 34.2 million people in the United States that are caregivers for a senior loved one and many of them spend 20 hours or more each week providing care. For many of these caregivers, that level of care must be maintained for several years and is something they take on in addition to full-time jobs.
That’s a significant portion of the population that spends a large percentage of their available time providing unpaid labor for their loved ones. Putting it that way may sound crass – making sure a loved one is comfortable and taken care of isn’t something we tend to think of as “unpaid labor” – but it is. It’s work that requires energy and time that the caregivers can’t then give to their other responsibilities and hobbies.
Experts estimate that the work caregivers provide to loved ones is worth roughly $470 billion per year, yet it goes largely unvalued and unacknowledged by society as a whole.
Who Are The Nation’s Caregivers?
While the majority of caregivers are women, as you might expect, the gender breakdown isn’t entirely one sided. Men make up 40% of caregivers.
Caregiving is common across all adult age groups, with most caregivers (34%) being in the 50-64 range, but younger caregivers are common as well. 24% are in the 18-34 age range, and 23% are 35 to 49.
Caregivers are common across all racial demographic groups as well, although the age breakdown tends to be different. White and Asian caregivers are usually over 50, while African American and Hispanic caregivers are fairly evenly split across age groups.
If there’s one thing that the demographic statistics about caregivers can tell us, it’s how widely this issue touches all of society. It’s not just people of a certain age, gender, or racial demographic – it’s everyone. If you haven’t been touched by the need to provide care to a senior loved one yet, the day is probably coming when the trend will touch you too.
Cause for Concern
The statistics clearly establish that caregiving is a huge responsibility that’s affecting the lives of millions. A lot of people are doing a lot of work that goes unpaid and unacknowledged by much of the culture around them. And the need for caregiving is only set to grow in years to come.
A report from National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine rings the warning bell that the need for senior caregiving is about to vastly outpace the supply. Multiple trends work together to make this a serious issue:
- Seniors are living longer than ever due to medical advances.
- The kids of the baby boomers (and their kids) had lower marriage rates and smaller families, meaning fewer family members are available to take care of aging loved ones.
- Families are increasingly spread out geographically, with kids and grandkids often spanning the nation, if not the entire globe. A son or daughter on the other side of the country can only provide so much care for a loved one.
Increasingly over the next couple of decades, the seniors who need care will have fewer and fewer family members and loved ones to turn to for help, and the burden will fall harder on the shoulders of those who are available.
The Challenges of Caregiving
We all want the people we love to be healthy, comfortable, and safe. But for aging seniors, the work that requires can quickly start to take its toll. It’s what the writer Pamela Wilson described as the “caregiving trap” in her book on the subject. Caregivers feel like they owe all the work of caregiving to their loved ones, and that sense of obligation turns into a difficult mix of exhaustion, guilt, and resentment the longer caregiving takes its toll on their lives.
For what it’s worth, any caregiver struggling with these feelings should know they’re not alone. Caregiving causes a whole host of issues in the lives of people that take on the responsibility:
- High levels of stress – Managing an extra 20 hours or more of work on top of your other job and life obligations predictably leads to a lot of stress. And stress is dangerous. It can contribute to heart disease, a weakened immune system, and increase the likelihood of dying earlier.
- Job issues – 60% of senior caregivers reduce the number of hours they work or take a leave of absence. The money they lose in doing so adds up – family caregivers over 50 sacrifice, on average, over $300,000 in wages and benefits.
- Emotional strain – Family caregivers experience a higher incidence of depression and anxiety than non-caregivers. It’s no wonder. Watching a loved one suffer, taking on the burden of care, and trying to balance it with everything else in life is emotionally difficult.
The first step to addressing the serious issues that come with the rise in caregiving is acknowledging them. The millions of people in the US whose lives have become dominated by the task of caring for a loved one need to be seen and acknowledged.
But we can’t stop there. The country as a whole has to start working on solutions to ease the burden.
The resources that can help caregivers carry the load, like in-home care providers, are financially out of reach for many families, unless they can get help covering the costs from social services, insurance, or some other source. Our health care system currently does little to help ensure family caregivers are properly trained for the tasks they must perform for loved ones. And the work environment in the US leaves little flexibility for the people who need to take time off to care for loved ones.
Whether it comes through cultural changes, legislative ones, or a combination of the two, our country is faced with the need to start addressing the problems that have arisen with the current state of caregiving in the United States. Hopefully caregivers and their families will be able to take advantage of some of those changes in the years to come.