We Need to Tackle the Daunting State of Our Country’s Elder Care
As the baby boomer generation ages, the need for caregivers to support the aging population increases. Traditionally, family members of elderly individuals in need of care stepped up to the plate.
However, a changing economy has rendered it difficult, even impossible, for children of boomers to tackle care-giving and employment responsibilities simultaneously. Many Americans find themselves working longer and harder than ever just to stay afloat.
The result? America faces a caregiver shortage nothing short of crisis-level.
The Caregiver Shortage
The number of elderly Americans in need of care has grown tremendously in recent years. Approximately 11 million seniors require help with the activities of daily living.
Not surprisingly, the burden of elder care falls primarily upon women. More women reduce hours to care for family members, and some leave the workforce altogether.
Women leaving the workforce creates a ripple effect. Leaving the workforce not only creates immediate economic insecurity, but it also means receiving less in Social Security benefits down the road. When these women reach retirement age, they find themselves in need of care but lack the economic means to hire a professional caregiver.
Because pay for caregivers remains low, very few men accept such roles. Men require care at the same rate as women. However, the professional caregiving community predominantly recruits from only one half of the population.
People have fewer children today, too, which creates another factor in the caregiver shortage. Fewer children means fewer people to care for the elder generations.
Finally, as immigrants make up a sizable percentage of professional caregivers, the Trump administration’s crackdown on immigration further narrows the employment pool.
Consequences of the Caregiver Crisis
The caregiver shortage means many seniors go without the assistance they need. This increases the likelihood of falls and other injuries as seniors attempt to tackle tasks they should not. Many healthcare facilities lack adequate staff to care for all patients. One unfortunate 91-year-old woman survived a harrowing hospital ordeal after falling in her garage.
She developed pneumonia and likely would have died if her sons hadn’t intervened and insisted the doctor on duty read her X-ray results. She often went without food as nurses would haphazardly place her food tray out of reach. No one asked her about her pain levels.
Hospitals need caregivers on staff to prevent future instances of patient harm. But with few caregivers to go around, many lack adequate staffing, meaning patients without family to supervise their loved one’s care often go neglected.
Financial Difficulties Caregivers Face
Those caring for elderly family members suffer severe financial losses. These losses impact not only them, but also their coworkers and employers.
Caring for family members often means increased absenteeism from work. This taxes coworkers with picking up the slack. It also negatively impacts their employer’s bottom line when they lack adequate staff. For hourly employees, absenteeism also means bringing home a smaller paycheck. Earning less means having less to invest for the worker’s own retirement.
Nearly half of all caregivers report taking time away from work to care for ailing family members. This equates to $25.2 billion dollars in lost productivity per year.
Additionally, caregivers who also work report higher levels of depression, anxiety and burnout. Many caregivers find themselves facing negative performance reviews or even termination due to poor attendance.
Solving the Problem of Elder Care
Addressing the caregiver shortage crisis requires change at all levels, from individual employers to the federal government.
Employers can institute flextime policies to allow caregivers to work from home at least part of the time. If the nature of the work makes telecommuting impossible, employers can implement paid family leave policies.
Increasing the salary of paid caregivers can also help alleviate the shortage. Most professional caregivers currently take home between $22,000 and $23,000 per year and rarely receive any benefits. Raising caregiver salaries will attract more qualified applicants to these roles.
The government must also take action to address the caregiver shortage. For example, increasing the amount Medicare pays for professional caregivers will save money in the long run. When it comes to preventing accidents such as falls and medication overdoses, an ounce of prevention truly is worth a pound of cure.
Rep. Nita Lowey recently introduced a bill to address the caregiver shortage. The proposed measure would give up to five years of credit for Social Security benefits to workers who take time off to care for family. If passed, this measure would significantly reduce the economic burden many caregivers, especially women, face.
Responsibilities of a Caring Society
Solving the caregiver shortage crisis will take a lot of hard work. However, if we want to call ourselves a caring society, we must address the needs of some of our most vulnerable citizens: the elderly. Everyone deserves to enjoy their golden years in a supportive and safe environment.