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Many people pay a high price to be an unpaid caregiver


We talk about the joys of caregiving, but it can take an emotional and financial toll on even the most loving person.

In September, I fell and fractured my right foot in two places. I’m mobile now, but for a few weeks I couldn’t do much for myself. It was torture lying there waiting for help. It was a preview of what it might be like should I need long term-care assistance when I can no longer do basic activities such as eating, dressing, and bathing.

AARP conducted a study among family caregivers to determine their expenses. The report estimated that family caregivers spent an average of about $7,000 per year on out-of-pocket costs related to caregiving in 2016. Some caregivers spent much more — often at the expense of their own financial well being.


The report found that caregivers are spending nearly 20 percent of their income assisting those under their care.

Meanwhile, The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research also has studied the cost of caregiving. Currently, 40 percent of Americans have experience providing long-term care to an older family member or friend.

For the majority of caregivers with incomes of less than $50,000, helping care for a relative creates a significant financial burden. The survey found that 25 percent have reduced how much they save for their own retirement. Some borrowed to cover caregiving expenses.

There’s a video every caregiver should watch that was put out by AARP and The Ad Council a few years ago. Search on YouTube for “Caregiving: Ad Council PSA — Silent Scream.” Watch the 32-second version of the ad, which captures overwhelmed caregivers silently screaming. It’s an acknowledgment that caregivers want to help but can still get frustrated with the job.

I tear up every time I watch the video. It ends with a link to aarp.org/caregiving. On the site you’ll find a link to a “Prepare to Care Guide.”


The guide, offered in several languages, suggests five steps to better caregiving.

■  Talk it out. It can’t be said enough how important it is to have candid conversations before there’s a crisis that leads to a caregiving situation. And once you’re in it, be honest about your feelings.

There were times during my recovery that I felt I was a burden.

My eldest child, who is living at home while she finishes graduate school, was very helpful. But each time she assisted me I would apologize. I must have said, “I’m sorry,” a thousand times. Finally, my daughter asked me to just stop it. She said it had become irritating to her that I was so apologetic. Yet, I knew she didn’t always want to be bothered. It showed on her face. Still, I had to learn that was OK.

If you’re a caregiver, be clear about your commitment to helping even if you become exasperated or exhausted.

■  Form a team. Many caregivers go it alone, and that’s going to lead to burnout. Just like those of us who need care should ask for help, as a caregiver you need to also seek assistance. If you can’t get it from family members, check for community resources. Call in support from your network of friends. Don’t be a martyr.

■  Put together a plan. Part of the strain of caring for someone is the failure to map out what you’ll need emotionally and financially. Only 54 percent of caregivers have a plan for who would provide care if they could no longer do it themselves, according to the AP-NORC poll.


■  Tap community resources. Check for local services by going to eldercare.gov. Check to see if your employee assistance program has a list of resources you can tap.

■  Create a caregiving plan for yourself. Almost a quarter of caregivers described their health as fair or poor, and a similar proportion report the same about their mental or emotional health, according to the AP-NORC Center findings. Nearly 6 in 10 caregivers who spend more than 10 hours a week providing care said it is difficult to make time for other things in their lives. They sacrifice time with their spouses, children and friends. They cut back on sleep, exercise or hobbies.

All the research shows it’s not a matter of if you’re going to be a caregiver but when. You can’t be at your best if you neglect your own care.

Michelle Singletary can be reached at michelle.singletary@washpost.com.