Aging: The Times Are A-Changin’

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Sat, Feb 27, 2010, 8:22 pm  //  Guest writer

By guest writer Nanette Davis, Ph.D.

Maybe you’ve heard about the Big Boom—that’s what demographers call the 44-64-year-old age group who are joining the ranks of the elderly over the next decade. Like generations before them, they’re forced to confront retirement and chronic health conditions. But unlike those earlier generations, they will undoubtedly face a much longer life expectancy—and quite likely, long-term care.

The longevity revolution is upon us. Prior to the 1800s, only one in ten persons could expect to live to age 65. Today, most will reach that age—and considerably beyond. In fact, those over 85 are now the fastest growing age group in the U.S.

Our technologically advanced society has moved from prolonging life to postponing death, potentially involving years of physical and emotional dependency among older persons. Are we ready for this avalanche of elderly citizens who will invariably demand a high level of social and medical services? Even more, the elderly will need family care that may extend for years.

Today, the number of family caregivers is estimated at 44 million people who provide unpaid care each year for one or more ill or disabled family members or friends. About 15 million of these caregivers are middle-age adults helping sick or disabled parents, and their numbers will grow as baby boomers and their parents age. Without the assistance of these family caregivers, many older people with disabilities would be forced into institutions. The Metropolitan Life Insurance Company and AARP point to the savings in public dollars when family caregivers help their sick relatives stay in their own home or that of a loved one.
Where does that leave the family caregiver? Half or more of elder caregivers juggle work, family and caregiving responsibilities, contributing to enormous emotional, physical and financial hardships. A 2007 Report by Evercare and the National Alliance for Caregiving found that nine of 10 caregivers have seen a decline in their own health while caring for an ailing loved one. And “caring for the caregiver” remains an underdeveloped concept among policymakers. Instead, the caregiving burden usually falls directly on the caregiver, who is most likely female, and her family.

Health policy analysts warn us that family caregiving entails the disruption of peoples’ lives. And caregivers remain a vulnerable population. Twenty percent of women caregivers under 65 have no health insurance, while 46% have chronic health conditions themselves. More than half of family caregivers live in households with less than $50,000 in annual income, curtailing the amount of paid help they can afford. My interviews of 60 women living in or near Whatcom County, who serve as family caregivers, opened my eyes to the situation in our community. Most caregivers reported they were the sole caregiver for their loved one—steady family help was hard to come by. They also indicated they were unaware of community support systems, at least in the early period of their caregiving. Lack of public information about community resources and shortage of respite care plagued many overworked caregivers. A few devoted all their life savings to caring for their elderly relatives. Some worked 24/7 to enhance the declining health and life of their aged loved one. Alas, a common result was that the overburdened caregiver became ill herself.

What are we doing in Whatcom County about this emerging elder caregiving crisis? Resources are available—but never enough. The Regional Council on Aging offers a wide selection of information on resources for the aged, but their referral lists for home care workers is often out of date, and lacks a grading system. Families need to know who comes recommended to assist their loved one, and who should be taken off the list. St. Joseph Hospital leads the way in bi-weekly support groups for caregivers, as well as grief counseling. Additionally, the hospital sponsors Adult Day Health Services for persons with dementia, an outstanding community service. Elder Service Providers, an umbrella organization, is a non-profit group that embraces a number of public and private groups serving the elderly. Still, respite care, which provides paid care to enable time out for caregivers, remains in desperately short supply.

Perhaps the brightest light on the horizon is that our community is making a strong effort to respond to the changing face of aging with housing, social supports and a wide array of programs. But is it enough to prevent the ailing elderly avalanche from burying us all?

Nanette is a long-time resident of Bellingham and teaches at Western Washington University in Bellingham. She received her Ph.D. from Michigan State University and completed a post-doctorate degree at Stanford University. Her scholarly work includes nine books and more than 100 articles. She is a recipient of the prestigious Fulbright Senior Scholar Award. Her latest book is Blessed is She: Elder Care~Women’s Stories of Choice, Challenge and Commitment. House of Harmony Press, 2008. It is available at local and national booksellers.

Related Links:

-> Click here for her website and other publications

Kamalla R. Kaur  //  Tue, Mar 02, 2010, 3:22 pm

Welcome Dr. Davis,

Enjoyed your article. 

Taking care of elders in our homes often proves too difficult and putting elders in assisted living and nursing homes means that corporations suck up our family fortunes. In either case we wonder if aged people in our town and country receive good care.

Aging: The Times Are A-Changin’

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