There are two things we know for sure about the nation's 65 million family caregivers: One, they take on serious physical and financial burdens while providing billions of dollars in free medical care; two, there likely won't be nearly enough of them in the future to care for the aging baby boom generation.
To address both those challenges, Janice Lynn Schuster, a senior writer with the Altarum Institute, a nonprofit health research group, recently proposed a somewhat radical solution: A national Caregiving Corps of volunteers, young and old, to provide care and companionship while easing families' burden and expenses.
The idea came to Schuster about a month ago while she was taking part in a Twitter chat on eldercare issues. Someone asked what people could do now to make life easier for family caregivers and another participant replied that the United States needed a new Peace Corps.
The idea struck a nerve with Schuster, who quickly took it to "We the People," the White House website that allows citizens to post petitions on any topic and, if they can attract 100,000 electronic signatures on the site in a month, get a response from the Obama administration.
Schuster's petition read:
The petition, which did not reach the White House threshold, is now available for signature on a new online petition hub, Care2.com, which can resubmit it to the White House if it gets the sufficient signatures. But it sparked a flurry of discussion in caregiving forums and newsletters.
Among the most common responses: How would such a Corps be paid for? How would volunteers be trained and supervised?
In a more detailed online version of her proposal, Schuster suggests that volunteers would sign up for stints of a year or two. In exchange for their service, they would earn tuition credits to cover the cost of college, receive some degree of loan forgiveness or be paid a stipend. The caregivers would be assigned to community-based organizations that serve older adults, like Area Agencies on Aging, or nonprofit health care institutions or social services agencies.
Schuster also envisions corps recruits acquiring valuable skills while caring for older adults, including basic medial and nursing techniques which they could end up using in their future careers or within their own families. Professional in-home health aides would be mentors to corps members, bringing new value and respect to their own careers, she says.
In some ways, Schuster's concept is simpler than the Peace Corps or other programs that enable recent college graduates to serve, like Teach for America. Caregiving Corps recruits would not need to travel or find housing, as they would primarily serve in their hometowns. For that reason, she imagines, her corps could potentially recruit and deploy far more volunteers. "The need would be so widespread," she says, "there'd be no need to go far away to find someone who needed your help."
Those who question how the program could be paid for, she says, should realize that "we already pay for this care one way or another as a society," whether it's in Medicare payments for long-term residential care, lost potential tax revenues from caregivers who leave the workforce or the cost of medical care for family caregivers who are uninsured. "If we looked at the real costs of caregiving, we'd see that we're shouldering this burden now," Schuster says. "Why don't we think of a better way to pay for this care?"
An Opportunity for Engagement?
Her proposal appears to be well-timed. In recent years, there has been an increased national awareness of the contributions and burdens of family caregivers. There has also been a growing movement to recruit volunteers online to crowdsource caregiving, not only family and friends but neighbors as well. Volunteers are already signing up to shop for groceries, drive to doctor appointments, help with prescription pickups and even mow caregivers' lawns.
(MORE: How Online Volunteers Support Caregivers)
The corps idea also comes at a moment when thousands of college students and recent graduates — part of the "millennial" generation — struggle to find employment and the means to begin paying off their college loans. "I know I've got five millenials in my family looking for some opportunity and direction," Schuster says.
Meanwhile, more and more retired baby boomers are seeking meaningful ways to become involved in their communities. "There's an outcropping of people who want to do something now," Schuster says. "It's just a matter of finding out what they can do. But there are a lot of things that family caregivers do that friends and neighbors could do to help pitch in, including just keeping someone company.
"People want to be helpful," she adds. Potential volunteers "sometimes think they're overstepping some line if they offer to come to someone's home, that they're invading the family's space."
Similarly, caregivers with needs may feel uncomfortable seeking aid. But a program like the Caregiver Corps "would normalize it," Schuster says. "If you can see lots of other families in the same situation who are getting some help, you may realize that it's OK to ask somebody to give you a hand."
A Clear and Growing Need
"Because of the demographic trends we're facing," Schuster says, "there just won't be enough family caregivers to go around" by the time the entire baby boom generation has passed age 65. "We have to start using our imaginations a little more to figure out how to fill those gaps.
(MORE: A Lifelong Peace Corps Dream Comes True)
"We have more people who are going to live to be 'old old' people, who will not need as much medical care but will need social services," she says.
The corps idea "sounds great as a Tweet, but would it really work as public policy? I'm not a number cruncher," Schuster says, "but it's worth thinking about. If we don't figure out how to do this, we're going to face a future in which old people are abandoned because we won't have the structures we need to care for them. We might as well try some big ideas to address a big problem – a big opportunity, really."