Caregivers: The backbone of long-term care

Caregivers are often called the backbone of U.S. long-term care (LTC). More than 42 million are providing care for disabled Americans at any given time, and more than 61 million did so within a year’s year. who care for disabled spouses, relatives and friends provide nearly 80 percent of community-based LTC.  The estimated annual value of this unpaid, mostly female workforce: $450 billion in 2009, up from $375 billion in 2007.

The value of that care is almost as much as the 2009 gross domestic product of Belgium, the world’s 20th largest economy.

The typical caregiver is a 49-year-old woman who works and provides about 20 hours a week of unpaid care to a parent. Care-giving duties include emotional support, meal preparation, assistance with dressing and bathing, supervising and administering medication and therapy, and coordinating care with providers.

 Nearly one half of the U.S. workforce has provided some form of elder care in the past five years, and nearly 1 out of 5 are doing so currently.  About half also expects to be a caregiver within the next five years.

Until the mid-1990s, unpaid care-giving was supplemented by paid help. Since then, the trend has been toward caregivers going it alone.

The rise of widespread care-giving is a direct result of longer life expectancies. In 1900, life expectancy was 47 and many died of communicable diseases. The current life expectancy is 78, and is expected to rise to 80 years old in 2020. Most contemporary deaths are from lingering chronic conditions that often disable patients.

The percent of adult children caregivers has tripled since 1994. Of those, about 10 million were 50 or older in 2008. More than 1 out of 4 report either a moderate or significant financial hardship because of caregiving. According to an online survey, more than 4 out of 10 spend more than $5,000 annually on caregiving expenses. A separate survey found that caregivers of those over 50 years old spend more than 10 percent of their annual income on caregiving, or an average of $5,531. An analysis of lifetime income-related losses for caregivers of those over 50 exceed $300,000, including wages, benefits and pension income.

Caregivers pay an even higher price with their health. More than 2 out of 3 family caregivers say caring for a loved one was their No. 1 source of stress, outranking economic difficulties and other family problems. Family caregivers are at greater risk of their own chronic conditions, including heart disease, high blood pressure, depression and fatigue.

The supply of family caregivers is shrinking as life expectancy grows and baby boomers become elderly. Nearly 20 percent of older women do not have children. Moreover, nearly half of women are in the labor force, compared with 33 percent in 1960.