Taking care of aging or ailing parents has become the norm for many people today. While caregiving can be hard, helping loved ones keep their independence as long as possible can be fulfilling and satisfying with the right support.
A growing need for caregivers
More people are living longer,1 and with those added years come an increase in chronic health conditions — including Parkinson’s, heart disease, cancer and Alzheimer’s, among others.
Fifty-three million adults in the United States — or 21.3 percent of the U.S. adult population — provide informal, unpaid care for aging or disabled family members.2 And the number keeps growing.
Providing care could mean helping family members with daily activities — such as bathing, grooming and transportation — as well as helping them manage their finances and being a friend, companion, decision maker and advocate. This invaluable support can mean the difference between family members remaining in their homes and moving to an assisted living facility or nursing home.
But caring for family members can have unintended consequences on families. Thankfully, while challenges exist, so do support systems and resources to help.
The many faces of caregivers
Because so many Americans are caring for loved ones, they span all ages and life stages:
- 3 in 5 caregivers are women2
- Average age of caregivers is 49.4 years old2
- 46 percent of caregivers are ages 18 to 492
- More than 6 in 10 caregivers are employed, working an average of 35.7 hours a week2
- The average duration for caregiving is 4.5 years; the median time spent per week is 10 hours2
The sandwich generation poses unique challenges
A growing population of caregivers are part of the "sandwich generation," a term first used in the 1980s to describe women who were "sandwiched" between taking care of young children and aging parents.3 Since then, it has grown to include all adult children caring for their parents, while raising kids of their own.
This leads to some unique challenges for working parents in the sandwich generation. Not only are many juggling a full-time job with their home life — household to-dos, errands, meal prep, laundry, getting kids to soccer practice — they’re also managing and providing care for a parent in the span of just one day.
Caregiving can lead to stress
Taking care of loved ones with chronic conditions such as Alzheimer’s, other forms of dementia or a long-term physical condition can cause great stress. In fact, 36 percent of caregivers report high emotional stress from the demands of caregiving, while another 28 percent report moderate emotional stress.2
Caregiving isn't just emotionally stressful - it can lead to physical stress as well. Nearly 1 in 4 caregivers feel caregiving has made their health worse.2
The costs of caregiving
In addition to psychological and physical impacts, caregiving can cause undue stress on a family’s finances.
Whether it’s paying for prescription medications, installing a ramp for a wheelchair-bound care recipient, or purchasing consumable supplies, caregiving can have a significant financial impact.
Beyond the immediate costs, caregivers may also face other negative impacts such as loss of health insurance or other job benefits, or decreased contributions to retirement savings, investments or Social Security benefits.
Almost half of caregivers report experiencing at least one financial impact as a result of caregiving. The biggest impact was on saving - nearly 30 percent of caregivers reported they had to stop saving as the result of their role. Other impacts include taking on more debt, leaving bills unpaid or paying bills late, and borrowing money from loved ones.2
A bigger impact on working women
Working female caregivers may suffer a higher level of economic hardship than everyone else — mostly due to lost wages from reduced work hours, time out of the workforce, family leave, early retirement or a shorter time contributing to a retirement plan or Social Security.
Planning for future care
As people age, having a strategy for dealing with future health care costs and access to the right support services can make a real difference for their caregivers.
This allows children or family members to remain in their caregiving role longer, with less stress and greater satisfaction. It also means financial peace of mind. Caregivers don’t have to worry about how to pay for care and can focus on making the best care decisions.
These actions can help provide peace of mind for both the person needing care and the future caregiver — and ease physical and mental stress.
Build an emergency fund
Experts recommend building an emergency fund that could cover up to 3-6 months' worth of living expenses. For most people, that can add up to an intimidating number that can discourage even the best-intentioned saver. Here are some tips to help get started.
Consider automatic savings for healthcare expenses
Saving in a health savings account through your employer can help cover future, non-reimbursed medical costs. Money from each of your paychecks is automatically deposited into a designated account that you can use for deductibles, copays and medications.
Have a secured line of credit
If emergency savings or other type of cash reserve is not an option, some financial professionals suggest a line of credit secured by your home as a short-term option if you can repay the loan quickly, since they generally offer lower interest rates.
Consider insurance options
Different insurance options, such as life insurance with a long-term care or chronic illness rider, a life/long-term care hybrid product, or individual long-term care insurance, are designed to provide a benefit that can help pay for care expenses.
Talk to loved ones
It's important to discuss your future care plan with loved ones so they know what to expect when the time comes. What type of care do you want? How involved would you like them to be with your care? Who is your power of attorney? Discussing these things ahead of time helps ensure everyone is on the same page before the unexpected happens.
Educate yourself about government benefits
Medicare and Medicaid are the main government programs that provide benefits for care, but they may not cover all your expenses. Understanding how each program works and what they do and do not cover can help avoid surprises down the road.
Caregiver support systems benefit everyone
Strong support systems can benefit everyone affected by a chronic condition, including caregivers. A study of caregivers, for example, connected strong social support with better coping skills.2
Strategies to manage the demands of caregiving
Here are some strategies to help you manage the demands associated with caring for someone who has a chronic illness:2
- Find time to relax — even if you have to schedule it. Visit friends, take a day off, see a movie. Do something that rejuvenates you and makes you happy.
- Eat balanced meals, get proper rest, and visit a doctor about any recurring health problems.
- Join a support group or seek out a counselor to help relieve feelings of anger, frustration and isolation.
- Find local and state resources that can offer physical, emotional and psychological support to you.
- Research local organizations that offer guidance and additional caregiving assistance.
- Meet with professionals about legal, financial or long-term health issues and come up with a strategy before you need them.