Why Caring for Older Adults Is Getting Costlier
From the outside, Kathryn Robison, 29, looks like any other graduate student on campus at Youngstown State University in Ohio. But as she's finishing her master's degree in American Studies, she's also juggling another big responsibility: Caring for her grandmother. She recently took a year and a half break from school to serve as her grandmother's primary caregiver in Raleigh, North Carolina, and now serves as a backup caregiver, since her mom took over the reins full time.
Robison originally volunteered for the role after a discussion with her mom. "My mom was saying, 'I don't know what we're going to do. Someone has to be with MeMa, someone has to live with her.' I said, 'Do you want me to do it? I don't have a family. I'm not dating anyone.' " The planned six months turned into a year and a half, and for part of the time, Robison commuted to her classes in Ohio by plane every week. "Paying for the plane tickets was less than the cost of having someone care for her," she says.
While she was glad to be able to take on the role, it did strain her financially. Being a full-time caregiver meant passing up the opportunity to take on other paid jobs. The family paid Robison about $1,000 a month out of her grandmother's fixed income, and the job was 24 hours a day, seven days a week. "Caregiving is incredibly stressful, especially for someone with mental deficiencies like dementia," Robison says. She notes that other than dementia and balance issues, her grandmother is healthy, and at age 74, could live awhile longer.
Because of the shifting demographics in the country, Robison's story will become an increasingly familiar one. Over the next 30 years, the number of elderly people (defined as those over age 65) will double and by 2040 will reach 81.2 million, according to Census Bureau data analyzed by Steven Wallace associate director of the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research. He points out that by 2030, baby boomers will hit age 85 and will likely need increasing amounts of care.
With more aging family members in need of caregiving services, more Gen Xers and millennials will be providing it, in tandem with paid caregivers and government programs. "Caregiving is generally viewed as a private issue and traditionally for women," said Lynn Friss Feinberg, senior strategic policy advisor for the AARP Public Policy Institute, at the annual Gerontological Society of America conference in the District of Columbia last month.
Currently, Feinberg says, most long-term care is provided by family and friends, who juggle their jobs and family responsibilities. The current ratio of family caregivers per every "vulnerable person" is 7 to 1, but soon, because of the aging population, it will be 3 to 1, she says. That will put even more pressure on family caregivers and make it harder for them to continue managing all their other responsibilities.
Kenneth Matos, senior director of research at the Families and Work Institute, notes that 1 in every 4 households in the country is performing some degree of elder care, and that ratio is growing. Unlike child care, he says, adult caregiving tends to be less predictable, and as a result, can be harder to manage with other responsibilities like work. "With elder care, you don't know when [the older adult] might get better and can't predict their capacity. With child care, they get sick and then get better in a few days," he said at the GSA conference. Child care is also generally a happier task and more joyful than caring for someone in decline.
According to research by the Families and Work Institute, 29 percent of employed caregivers say they need "help balancing their work and family responsibilities," and 70 percent of caregivers say they arrive late, leave early, take time off or adapt in other ways to make it possible to both work and be a caregiver. Matos notes that being a caregiver encompasses a range of duties, from maintaining medical records to being a patient advocate.
"Caregivers are stressed out because they're unprepared, and the primary responsibility falls on them," said Meredith Ponder, federal policy and advocacy manager of the Washington-based organization National Association of Nutrition and Aging Services Programs, at the GSA conference. Given longer life spans today, she adds, "Adults may spend more years caring for their parents than their children."
Robison says her experience caring for her grandmother has made her think about the importance of taking out long-term health care insurance for herself one day, as well as saving for retirement. "What we think we need is usually nowhere near the amount we need. ... If my grandmother didn't have a family, where would she be? Who would advocate for her?"
Robison adds that the situation continues to strain her family members, who want to make sure their MeMa is living as well as possible. "None of us are trained caregivers. We're just doing the best we can."
Editor's Note: Kimberly Palmer wrote this article through a Journalists in Aging Fellowship, a collaboration of New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America, with support from AARP.
Kimberly Palmer is a senior editor for U.S. News Money. She is the author of the new book, "The Economy of You." You can follow her on Twitter @alphaconsumer, circle her on Google Plus or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.