November is National Caregivers Month, a time to reflect on caregivers and caregiving, those who sacrifice and serve in caring for those who are sick, elderly, or disabled, whether a family member, friend, or even neighbor. With an astounding $450 billion of uncompensated care provided annually by unpaid family caregivers, family caregivers stand as the largest source of long-term care services in America at more than 65 million strong, according to the Family Caregiver Alliance.
November is National Caregivers Month, a time to reflect on caregivers and caregiving, those who sacrifice and serve in caring for those who are sick, elderly, or disabled, whether a family member, friend, or even neighbor. With an astounding $450 billion of uncompensated care provided annually by unpaid family caregivers, family caregivers stand as the largest source of long-term care services in America at more than 65 million strong, according to the Family Caregiver Alliance. Today in Missouri, more than half a million individuals, also known as family caregivers, provide care for chronically ill, disabled, aged family members or friends, and they spend an average of 20 hours per week providing this care, according to the National Alliance for Caregiving. While family caregiving has an immediate appeal of cost saving measures, there are costs, some hidden, that many don't consider when taking on the role of caregiver. Demographics of Family Caregiving Research paints a portrait of the typical family caregiver: She's 49 years of age. She's caring for her widowed mother, and they do not live together. She is married and works outside the home. She may still have children living at home, grandchildren even. Sixty-six percent of family caregivers are women, but male caregivers should not be overlooked for the vital role they play in the lives of so many. More than 70 percent of those being cared for are over 50 years of age, many of whom are parents of the caregivers. There are lots of numbers to rattle off when talking demographics and economics. Looking at an issue from an objective perspective often relies on this information to accurately see fact from opinion. Having said that, an alarming 78% of adults in need of long-term care turn to family and friends as their only source of help, according to the National Family Caregivers Association. Economics of Family Caregiving There are economic implications of family caregiving. Researchers from Rice University released data that shows in all 50 states, including Washington D.C., that families with members having disabilities (including illness), live in poverty at a higher rate. In fact, the same research shows that female family caregivers are 2.5 times more likely to live in poverty than non-caregivers and caregiving households have more than a 15 percent lower income than non-caregiving households. Looking back to the economic downturn in 2009, family caregivers were hard pressed. In fact, one in five caregivers had to move in with those they were caring for to reduce expenses, as reported from the National Alliance for Caregiving. And, despite efforts to reduce expenses, 47 percent of working caregivers report continuing increased expenses caused them to use all of most of their savings, which has direct impact on the financial security and retirement plans for caregivers. For the average family caregiver, caring for someone over the age of 50, the caregiver is on average spending $5,531 per year, out of pocket, for expenses not covered by insurance. This is more than 10 percent of the average income for caregivers, according to AARP. Hidden Costs There are also hidden costs of family caregiving: stress, caregiver burnout, and illness, just to name a few. Sally Myers, a support group co-facilitator at Boonville's Cooper County Memorial Hospital, said that caregivers experience high stress levels in caring for loved ones. She said caring for loved ones who have an illness, like dementia, where the person being cared for may be in denial that they even need care and assistance, begs a whole new level of need for caregivers. Myers urges caregivers to reach out to a local support group, like the one at the hospital. She says, “The time it takes to connect with a support group is 100 percent worth it.” According to Myers, “As caregivers, we're all going through the same walk, and sharing common experiences can set us free.” When Myers was asked about the biggest concerns of caregivers, she responded with a quick, “finances.” She said in today's landscape families struggle with having enough money to buy a tank of gas, so to use the fuel to travel to a support group, well some may not see the value. Myers said a good support group can connect a caregiver with solid research and information about illnesses, medications, and healthcare in addition to funding sources that may even offer financial assistance for caregivers to travel to support groups. Myers said, “As caregivers, we're under so much stress. We all have to learn to take care of ourselves first, or we're going to get burned out. There is so much good in sharing stories and struggles, to know you're not alone.” Myers knows what it means to sacrifice and feel financial burden from caregiving. She herself had to leave a full-time job to care for a family member. She said she learned the value of joining a support group from her personal need for such. Impact on Health In fact, stress does take a toll. The National Academy of Sciences released a report that states: “Stress of family caregiving for persons with dementia has been shown to impact a person's immune system for up to three years after their caregiving ends thus increasing their chances of developing a chronic illness themselves.” Further, 75 percent of family caregivers report not going to the doctor regularly for their own care as often as they should, and 55 percent say they skip doctor appointments for themselves altogether. More news for poor health: 58 percent of caregivers say their exercise habits are worse now than before caregiving began, and 63 percent more caregivers, as opposed to non-caregivers, report having poor eating habits. Back to the conversation with Myers, she shares, “Take care of yourself first. You can't take care of someone else if you're not well.” Connecting with the Research Family caregiving is a permanent part of America's landscape. Resources are available to help caregivers navigate this world of unknowns. Whether one contacts a local hospital, church, or turns to the internet, knowing what's available to you can make your journey a whole lot more manageable. One thing is for certain, there are faces behind every number, lives representing every statistic. In closing, to the 65 million caregivers of America: Thank you for your service, your time and energy, your selfless acts of patience and courage, your sacrifice and heart . . . you are unsung heroes, and this month we celebrate you.