Raise your hand if you or a sibling got to work late or left early in the past month to care for an elderly parent or chronically ill family member.
Add one point extra credit for each of the following extracurricular activities: filling a month’s worth of those little daily pill containers with the correct dosages of six different medications the first time. Paying all mom’s bills without overdrawing the account. Buying the right size and weight elastic socks at Walgreen’s. “Taking away” the car keys from mom or dad.
November is National Family Caregivers Month, and, if it is as successful as National Breast Cancer Awareness Month in focusing attention on the issues facing the nation’s mostly female 50 million family caregivers, this will be a very good thing.
According to the National Family Caregivers Association, in a given year, more than 65 million people care for a chronically ill or aged family member or friend and spend an average of 20 hours per week doing so.
That missed time at work? A 2006 Metlife study found that businesses can lose as much as $34 billion each year because of employees’ need to care for loved ones over age 50.
Of course, people have always cared for their parents. But these days, more women are working full time, and elderly people are living longer, and with more chronic illnesses. You almost need a degree in pharmacology to care for your parents, and doctors' appointments almost always take place on weekdays during work hours. When you have a big project due.
Thanks to the web, people are able to talk more openly and honestly about the stress of family caregiving. There are sites like Caring Bridge that can help spread the load and keep communication open by organizing a caregiving group. (Read about the benefits of a caregiving group in this essay by Helene Powers, who got help when she was caring for her dying husband.)
And we can laugh about it, at least a little. Texas wags Kelly Jackson and Sally Jackson, aka The Midlife Gals, have built an online following with their dark and hilarious videos, including this one about caring for their mom, who they called The Ancient One:
When The Ancient One passed away earlier this year, they changed her profile to “Now crossed over” and duly noted that “She approved this page before she went.”
But this is also a serious national issue. UMass economist and McArthur "genius" Nancy Folbre has written a book about the economics of family caregiving; part of the blurb:
Folbre argues that if we don’t establish a new set of rules defining our mutual responsibilities for caregiving, the penalties suffered by the needy - our very families - will increase. Intensified economic competition may drive altruism and families out of business.
The National Family Caregivers Association has developed policy proposals, including a call for Congress to increase the cap on deductibility of expenses for caregiving, and allowing those who have lost their health insurance because of caregiving to buy into Medicare or the Federal Employees Health Benefits Plan at rates based on income.
Whether or not these suggestions become law, we keep going. Part of this is the obligation of what it is to be a son or daughter; and part of it is self-interest: we want to show our own children what caregiving looks like.
Also, if we’re lucky, we’re next.
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