More often than not, caregivers are raising families and working outside the home in addition to caring for aging parents, chronically ill spouses, or children or grandchildren with special needs.
The report, commissioned by the National Alliance for Caregiving in collaboration with the AARP and the insurance group MetLife, resulted from interviews with nearly 1,500 caregivers chosen at random. Similar interviews were conducted in 2004 and 1997.
Some 65 million American adults are providing care to loved ones independent of traditional parenting roles, Elinor Ginzler, senior vice president of Livable Communities Strategies for AARP, tells WebMD.
She says the typical caregiver is a woman in her late 40s caring for a parent, most often her mother, who is in their late 70s or older.
"Caregiving is traditionally women's work," she says. "And women are usually juggling work and family responsibilities while they are providing this care."
Old Age, Alzheimer's Major Reason for Care
The survey found that:
-70 percent of caregivers were taking care of loved ones who were 50 years old or older.
-Caregivers provided an average of 20 hours per week of care.
-Caregiving lasted an average of 4.6 years.
-Older care recipients generally needed help because of deteriorating physical health (76 percent). More than half (51 percent) still lived in their own homes and 29 percent lived in their caregiver's home.
-Old age was cited as the main reason for needed care, by 12 percent of respondents, followed by Alzheimer's disease (10 percent), mental or emotional illness (7 percent), cancer (7 percent), heart disease (5 percent), and stroke (5 percent).
Ginzler says nearly three out of four caregivers who responded to the survey had paid jobs outside the home, and two-thirds said they had missed work as a result of their caregiving responsibilities.
She says the findings highlight the need for more support services for caregivers.
AARP has long pushed for a $3,000 tax credit for caregivers, and 56 percent of the survey respondents ranked a tax credit as important to them.
Health Care Debate Includes Caregivers
The tax credit is not a part of the sweeping health care legislation now being crafted by Congress, but Ginzler says the bill under consideration does include provisions that would help family caregivers.
Among the most ambitious is the Community Living Assistance Services and Supports (CLASS) Act, authored by Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT) and the late Sen. Edward Kennedy. The act provides for a national, voluntary insurance program to help Americans pay for long-term care.
Under the proposed plan, workers who do not opt out of the program would pay premiums through payroll deductions for disability and long-term care insurance.
The House version of the health care bill also provides additional funding for the National Family Caregiver Support Program, which aids family and community caregivers, Ginzler says.
Although more support services would help many caregivers, government and community assistance programs may elude many others, says Donna Schempp, who serves as program director for the Family Care Alliance.
That's because many people don't recognize themselves as caregivers, even though they are.
"A husband or wife who takes care of a sick spouse or an adult child who takes care of a parent may not think of him or herself as a caregiver," she tells WebMD. "As a result, they may not think to look for resources that can help them."
Even those who do seek help may not find the kind of support they need most, such as day care services or other resources aimed at easing the caregiver burden.
"Most caregiver support programs focus on teaching skills to improve patient care," she says. "While this is certainly important, it is also important to teach caregivers the skills they need to take care of themselves during a very stressful time."
By Salynn Boyles
Reviewed by Louise Chang
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