More than 75 million baby boomers – those born between the years 1946 and 1964 – are planning their own retirement while balancing a full plate of family responsibilities. As more boomers become caregivers of aging parents, they must become more self-aware to avoid burnout and protect their own physical and financial health.
Known as the “sandwich generation,” boomers often face the challenges of caring for the needs of a parent and their own children. Increasing life expectancy means that 71 percent of boomers have at least one living parent, according to a Pew Research Center national survey of more than 3,000 adults. Of those surveyed, 63 percent reported having at least one adult child over the age of 18, with almost two-thirds of those surveyed saying they support the adult child financially.
An AARP study found that the average caregiver is a 49-year-old woman who works outside of the home and spends nearly 20 hours a week providing unpaid care for her mother for nearly five years. Most caregivers serve numerous roles, including companionship, helping with household tasks, handling bills, carrying out personal care such as bathing and dressing, and serving as an advocate for their loved ones when coordinating medical care and support.
As boomers respond to the needs of their loved ones, they struggle with managing their own aging process. Boomer caregivers who juggle work, children and other responsibilities face an increased risk of chronic illness, decreased emotional health and well-being and substance abuse.
According to a MetLife Study of Caregiving Costs to Caregivers, boomers over the age of 50 who work and provide care to a parent are more likely to have fair or poor health compared to those who do not provide care to their parents.
Caregiving takes a financial toll on working boomers as well, especially as they near retirement age. Reducing work hours, quitting their jobs or retiring earlier than planned are some economic consequences.
Social Security, wage and private pension losses due to caregiving averages $303,880 for a typical caregiver, according to MetLife. Multiply that number times the nearly 10 million people over the age of 50 caring for their parents, and the amount of earnings lost totals nearly $3 trillion.
In addition to lost earnings, boomer caregivers may have less money available to help their own children as they enter college, marry and purchase their own homes.
The New ‘Medical Home’
Not only are caregivers accompanying their aging parent to medical visits, as much as 53 percent are handling more health-related tasks such as bandaging and wound care, tube feedings, managing catheters and operating medical equipment. The AARP study said this could be attributed to shorter hospital stays, limited hospital discharge planning, fewer Medicare home health visits and improved home-based medical technologies – ultimately demanding more from family caregivers.
The study also reported that caregiver depression or burden is associated with problematic discharges, while the absence of a family caregiver has been linked to hospital readmissions. The risk of re-hospitalization can occur when the family caregiver feels unprepared to bring a parent home from the hospital after discharge. This is due to inadequate care coordination, poor communication from health-care providers and lack of follow-up and support services.
Collaborating with the Caregiver
There is a heightened awareness of the caregiving crisis, with solutions being discussed at national and state levels, according to the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregiving, an advocacy, education, research and service group. The Institute says much work remains to be done, however, to help caregivers provide quality care for loved ones while sustaining or improving their own quality of life.
Hospital discharge planners should integrate caregivers in the patient discharge process to make them partners on the care team, and provide access to training and support resources. Involving family caregivers during the transition from hospital to home may not only improve the quality of care, but it may also help to prevent hospital readmissions among Medicare beneficiaries, according to the AARP report.
Professional in-home caregivers and post-acute care facilities working with family caregivers must be equipped with the skills to assure a successful collaborative relationship. Skills training for professionals should encompass education on how to assess the needs of family caregivers in order to effectively partner with them.
Since caregiving can reduce productivity and lead to absenteeism in the workplace, employers should make stress-management programs and other preventive health services easily available to employees. Companies should consider implementing a family-friendly workplace policy that includes flextime and telecommuting.
While only a few states have paid family and medical leave, policymakers should propose expanding that to all states, which would benefit working caregivers who need to take leave to care for their aging parent, the MetLife study suggests.
Boomer caregivers must become more self-aware of their own health and well-being. It’s easy to forget preventive care appointments when caring for others. To avoid burnout, caregivers must remember to get adequate sleep, nutrient-rich foods, water and exercise. The biggest key: Know when to ask for help.
Caregivers should tap into online tools such as www.CaregiverStress.com, a website created by in-home care agency Home Instead Senior Care. Among the site’s abundance of resources is the “40/70” Rule, a guide to conversation starters for boomers and their parents.