Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The New Old Age - Who We Are Now

NY Times

We’re still, in most cases, female.

We’re still likely to be employed, usually full time.

We spend an average of 19 hours a week at this second job, caring for our older relatives.

Every few years, the National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP team up to survey the nation’s family caregivers and produce a massive, highly detailed study funded by Metlife. The first of these reports appeared in 1997, the next in 2004. The latest, released this week, provides an interesting picture of what’s changed in five years and what hasn’t.

The overall report, “Caregiving in the U.S. 2009” [pdf], includes people taking care of family members of any age, including children with special needs. But the researchers, helpfully, have also published a companion study of people caring for adults over 50.

It shows that elder care remains primarily women’s work and that most caregivers continue to juggle unpaid caregiving and paid work.

What’s changed? The people we take care of are older. In 2004, the proportion of elders over age 75 was 55 percent; now it’s 63 percent. We’re older, too: caregivers’ average age rose from 48 to 50. Unsurprisingly, then, a higher proportion are caring for seniors with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.

But we have less paid help. The proportion whose older relatives had aides, housekeepers or other paid workers dropped to 41 percent from 46 percent; the use of paid help also declined among all caregivers. The data don’t specify why families use less paid caregiving, but AARP’s Elinor Ginzler pointed to the most plausible explanation.

“Likely, this is related to the economy,” Ms. Ginzler said this week. “They can’t afford it.”

Perhaps in response, unpaid caregiving supplied by other family and friends has risen.

I’m always a little relieved, since we all hear too many heartbreaking stories of families crushed by their responsibilities, to be reminded by this and other caregiving studies that a majority of families handle the burden without great hardship or crippling trauma. Most respondents in this study said caregiving hasn’t harmed their own health or created much physical strain, and only a third found caregiving highly stressful emotionally. (To which I can hear a chorus of readers replying, “Just wait.”)

What kind of support would families caring for their elders most like to see? Topping the list is a $3,000 tax credit, followed by respite services, a voucher program that would pay family members minimum wages to be caregivers, and transportation services.

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