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Compassionate care. (Getty Images)
Compassionate care. (Getty Images)
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Do you recall what you were doing on February 16? Few of us probably do. 

It was, observed on the third Friday in February to honor individuals who provide physical and emotional care to those who need it. Some who perform this work are paid while others are not even as their commitment is often long-term.

Typically, they are underappreciated. 

Some data: According to a , there are roughly 48 million people across the country performing caregiving activities for loved ones, providing the (unpaid) equivalent of hundreds of billions of dollars in labor. By 2034, according to U.S. , adults ages 65 and older will outnumber children under the age of 18. At the same time, we will have fewer potential caregivers as the number of older adults needing care increases. 

About caregivers: Who are the people doing the work? Their average age is 49 and a half years old. Most are women. Twenty-five percent of them are between the ages of 18 and 34. According to a 2020 AARP report called , time is their largest challenge followed by money. Sixty-one percent have other jobs, and among those who do, a work 40 hours a week aside from their caregiving.

Caregivers often sacrifice not only their time and financial stability but their mental and physical health. Here are some alarming consequences as reported by the Family Caregiving Alliance, which shows females fairing worse than their male counterparts. 

  • High levels of stress and clinical depression
  • Feelings of frustration, anger, guilt or helplessness
  • Loss of identity and lower levels of self-esteem
  • Constant worry
  • Exhaustion when they go to bed each night
  • Greater risk for cognitive decline, including loss of short-term memory, attention and verbal IQ
  • Increased alcohol and substance abuse

The physical health of caregivers also can be at risk with about one in ten reporting their physical health has gotten worse while doing the work. Many suffer chronic conditions at twice the rate of non-caregivers including heart disease, cancer, diabetes and arthritis. They can suffer increased rates of physical ailments and have high levels of obesity. , lacking the time and energy to prepare proper meals or to exercise. 

An at-risk population: are often ill-prepared for their role. Their responsibilities and costs have increased with shorter hospital stays, limited discharge planning and the expansion of home care technology. They also are caring for loved ones for longer periods of time. Of those who aren’t working anymore, many lack health insurance. These external events can limit caregivers’ ability to provide the needed care affecting the quality of life for both themselves and their care recipients.

To lessen the frequency of these consequences, the Family Caregiver Alliance offers some suggestions. For example, have an assessment of family caregiver needs, participate in education and support programs, take time off to relieve some of the burden and find some financial support. 

I had the opportunity to speak with Lynne Friss Feinberg, a retired Washington, DC caregiving policy expert. She noted the “biggest challenge for families today is to hire a paid caregiver, given the national shortage and the cost.” She related her experience of visiting family members who were caring for their loved ones. When she asked these caregivers how they were doing, they often began to cry and said, “No one has ever asked me that before.” 

Resources: The provides supportive services that include information, assessment, individual consultations, respite, education, and training. They also provide , prognosis, and . Call 800-540-4442. To find public and private benefits and eligibility requirements, see . Contact Eldercarelocator, a public service of the Administration for Community Living at (800) 677-1116 and consider joining a support group.

Each of us can be a resource to a caregiver. Consider delivering a meal or two, offer some respite time, make a phone call or stop by for a visit. As the late Rosalyn Carter has said, “There are only four kinds of people in the world: Those who have been caregivers. Those who are currently caregivers. Those who will be caregivers, and those who will need a caregiver.”

Let’s all celebrate and honor our unsung heroes: our family caregivers.

An added note on love and commitment. I had a recent conversation with a husband caring for his wife (with a part-time caregiver) who has dementia. He said, “I will always be crazy about my wife. I kiss her whenever I leave the house and my love and endearing relationship with her will never stop.” 

Helen Dennis is a nationally recognized leader on issues of aging and the new retirement with academic, corporate and nonprofit experience. Contact Helen with your questions and comments at Helendenn@gmail.com. Visit Helen at HelenMdennis.com and follow her on facebook.com/SuccessfulAgingCommunity

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