Caregivers: Unrecognized Heroes

by Abby Marco | February 28, 2014 4:23 pm

Though we don’t often think of it, we have all had caregivers, and we will all likely be a caregiver at one point or another in our lives. Caregivers are the men and women who care for a sick, disabled, injured, or aging parent, spouse, child, or other family member while still trying to balance other aspects of their lives, such as going to school, having a career, or managing a family.

Today, one out of every five adults is a caregiver, a number that is sure to rise now that the Baby Boomer generation is growing older. Caregiving is something that undoubtedly touches each of us on a personal level, or will sometime in the future. For me, I witnessed a situation like this when my grandfather struggled with Alzheimer’s disease. My mom, my aunt and my uncle all took time off from work to care for my grandparents as my grandfather slipped further and further under Alzheimer’s spell.

According the Center for American Progress, one-third of caregivers for Alzheimer’s or dementia patients reported symptoms of depression as a result of the high emotional stress of caring for a loved one with these diseases. With my mom making the five-hour drive to help care for my grandfather many times a month, it certainly took an emotional toll on my family. As much as she wanted to be there for my grandpa, it was both physically and emotionally draining and prevented her from doing many of the things she would normally do for herself. I could see just how completely worn down my mom was during this span of time.

In addition to the emotional strain of caring for an ailing loved one, there are also financial repercussions. According to USA Today, research shows that family caregivers often sacrifice wages, retirement security and their own personal health when looking after their loved ones. Losses in wages, pension and Social Security from taking time off work to act as a caregiver can add up and have a serious impact on a family’s economic security. While higher-income families are able to hire outside care to resolve some of these problems, this is simply not an option for too many families already struggling to cover their normal expenses.

This past week, The Washington Post released a live forum on the issue of caregiving in the United States, including video interviews with caregivers and their advocates. Some highlights of the videos include a discussion about an employee coalition called Respect A Caregiver’s Time that helps companies offer support to their employees that are working as caregivers, information about caregiving support groups, and talk about the changing climate of caregiving in America today. The videos, each from a different perspective, make it clear that as a country we should provide more support for people filling these important roles. While there are a number of improvements that could be made to benefit caregivers, including providing greater work flexibility and paid time off for employees who also act as caregivers, one of the first policy changes we should implement is expanding Social Security benefits to be more inclusive of caregivers.

As it stands now, Americans who act as unpaid caregivers, often taking time off from paid jobs to do so, do not receive the credit and resulting Social Security benefits that a paid worker would receive for that same number of working hours. Expanding these benefits to help those who donate their time to helping others should be a policy priority.

But perhaps the very first step is acknowledging as a society the tremendous value of the work caregivers do. When we stop overlooking the enormous amount of time and emotional and financial stress that caregiving takes, and start seeing how vital the work really is, perhaps we will be more willing to take care of those who work to care for others.

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