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The Color of Money

Caregivers are stretched — emotionally and financially

I watched my father-in-law take his last breath.

Since midsummer, my husband and I had been caring for his father, who was 83 and had lung cancer. A nurse working for the hospice company had warned us that we might not have much more time with him.

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I had feared a business trip would keep me from being there. I arrived home an hour and half before he passed away. I’m so grateful that I was with him, along with my husband and the aide who gave so much of herself during the last year of his life.

You probably didn’t know that November is National Caregivers Month. And you probably didn’t know because there are no big celebrations. The 65 million people who give time and money to care for sick or disabled relatives do so in relative obscurity.

A friend sent me a link to a public service announcement created by the Ad Council and AARP. The 32-second video captures caregivers silently screaming from the frustrations, paperwork, and money issues that come with the job. I cried while watching it. Still the ad made me feel better knowing that I wasn’t alone or wrong in wanting to let my emotions show.

“Family caregivers are really a national treasure,” said John Schall, chief executive of the National Family Caregivers Association. The association began promoting the celebration in 1994. One of the pressing concerns facing our leaders is rising health care costs, especially for sick, disabled, and elderly citizens.

After the election, talk turned to the fiscal cliff facing the nation. But there’s another looming crisis, the caregiver cliff. Caregivers are taking time off work, risking their jobs, or tapping into their limited resources to provide care. They are stressed.

Consider these statistics collected by the caregivers association:

  The value of the services family caregivers provide free is estimated to be $450 billion a year. This is almost twice as much as what is spent on home care and nursing home services combined, Schall said.

 About 66 percent of family caregivers are women.

  Family caregivers spend an average of 20 hours per week providing care. Thirteen percent provide 40 hours of care a week or more.

  Nearly 80 percent of adults in need of long-term care depend on family and friends for help.

My father-in-law was a good saver and had enough money to pay for aides. But many others aren’t so fortunate. During the 2009 economic downturn, 1 in 5 family caregivers had to move into the same home with their relative to cut expenses.

There’s another figure that I need to point out. Forty-seven percent of caregivers who work say that paying for caregiving expenses has caused them to use up their savings.

The answer isn’t that we rely less on family caregivers. It’s not solely depending on government assistance. It’s going to take a combination of solutions. For example, legislation introduced in the Senate would establish a tax credit to assist with the costs of caring for an aging relative. Or, Schall said, we could give Social Security credits for full-time caregivers.

Michelle Singletary is a columnist for the Washington Post. com.
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