Americans in their 60s and 70s struggle as caregivers for older relatives

carehands-300x205Life can be hard, lonely, and difficult for adults who must become caregivers for their parents. If that sounds like the challenging story for tens of millions of millennials and Gen-Xers, yes, it’s true. But Judith Graham, in a column for the Kaiser Health News Service, describes what may be an even tougher role for startling numbers of seniors who find themselves solo caregivers for still older moms and dads.

Graham reported that a new analysis from the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College has found that 1 in 10 Americans between the ages 60 and 69 take care of parents in their 80s, 90s, and even older. For those 70 and older, the numbers increase, so 12 percent of these seniors care for even more elderly relatives. The research is based on data from 80,000 interviews (some people were interviewed multiple times) conducted from 1995 to 2010 for the Health and Retirement Study.

The analysis found that roughly “17 percent of adult children care for their parents at some point in their lives, and the likelihood of doing so rises with age. That’s because parents who’ve reached their 80s, 90s or higher are more likely to have chronic illnesses and related disabilities and to require assistance.”

And, if the burdens weigh on those who might traditionally be thought of as caregivers — women in their 40s and 50s — they can be crushing for older individuals. They may be struggling with their own disabilities and chronic illnesses, while also needing to provide the heavy-lift of basic care for frail and older relatives. This means lifting them in and out of bed, assisting them with tasks like bathing, teeth brushing, meal preparation and feeding.

Even as they try to handle their own needs for medical services, they also may have to transport older relatives for extensive medical care. As they age, already old care recipients also can be staggered with advancing chronic illness, debilitation, and losses of mental cognition, notably due to Alzheimer’s.

Older caregivers often find their finances depleted and their social network in tatters, meaning the social isolation that others in the caregiving role experience is yet deeper, lonelier, and more painful.

Sharon Hall, a Georgian who is 70, saw her responsibilities snowball, starting when her mother, after suffering a few small strokes, moved in with she and her husband. Hall, who has had two knee replacements and a broken femur, soon found herself caring for both, with mom and husband also lapsing fast into debilitation and dementia. She told Graham: “I did not expect this kind of life. If someone had told me it would be years caring for my mother and your husband is going to get dementia, I would have said ‘No, just no.’ But you do what you have to do.”

In my practice, I see how patients suffer while seeking medical services, and how they struggle to access and afford safe, effective, and even excellent medical care — with these challenges mounting as they grow older and must deal with illness and disability, physical and mental. Critics of the civil justice system, and especially of malpractice verdicts, often try to play up and attack sizable judgments won by those who suffer significant harm or injury, especially because of bad medical care. What they, and casual audiences, may fail to come to grip with is this: It can be costly to cover a long and arduous lifetime of needs for someone who is sick and hurt.

Americans have not yet fully reckoned with the implications of our graying society, in which demographers estimate that 10,000 baby boomers advance each day to a landmark of retirement age (65) and this wave will keep going for another two decades. Loved ones and friends, an estimated 43.5 million of them, already provide $470 billion in unpaid work as caregivers. We’re a nation with more single-person households and many of us don’t keep ties sufficiently tight with friends and family so as to rely on others for help as we age. We also don’t have the money or the facilities so we spend our old age in nursing homes.

A nightmare looms for the nation in figuring not just how to pay for and provide medical services but also the crucial component of long-term caregiving. If we stay healthy and live longer, many more of us will need assistance as we become the old old, as Graham’s story underscores.

Until policy wonks and lawmakers develop better options, though, it may be on us as individuals and in and with our communities to help caregivers of all ages. They may appreciate even the smallest gesture, including a friendly ear and a diverting conversation. They might enjoy it a lot if friends, onetime work colleagues, or churches could organize assistance, so they could occasional, real breaks from the rigors of their demands.

One way regulators, lawmakers, doctors, hospitals, insurers, and, yes, Big Pharma could also help families dealing with those with dementia: Stop the hype for dementia drugs. If they don’t work, and their effectiveness is in question, get patients off them. It needs to happen but as yet, isn’t.

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