(Next Avenue invited all our 2016 Influencers in Aging to submit essays about the one thing they would like to change about aging in America. This is one of the essays.)
One of the great joys of my life is watching my 6-year-old daughter spending time with my father, now 78. They like to do simple activities together — watch movies, play tea party — and she loves to read her favorite books to him again and again.
I cherish these moments dearly, knowing that someday these memories of reading books and playing with her Dadubhai (Bengali for “grandfather”) will be how she keeps her relationship with my dad alive in her heart.
Caregiving Is a Gift and a Responsibility
Every day, more than 10,000 Americans turn 65, and live longer than ever before. What a gift to have much more time with our elders than we had in the past — more time to learn and grow with them, more time to make the memories that will sustain us when they are gone. But it also means that over time, younger generations bear more responsibility for caring for them.
Care options are constrained, primarily by cost. Fewer than 8 percent of Americans have long-term care insurance, and most of us don’t have the personal financial resources we’d need to maintain care indefinitely in nursing homes or assisted living facilities.
Many family caregivers are financially and emotionally stretched, and struggle to balance care responsibilities with their jobs.
The public care resources available are not sufficient to meet the growing need for or expense of care, and we face a political moment where even those limited resources are in peril. Recent surveys show that 90 percent of us would prefer to receive care at home, among familiar faces and surroundings. All these reasons are why family members often decide to care for loved ones at home.
Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter once said, “There are only four kinds of people in this world: Those who have been caregivers, those who are caregivers, those who will be caregivers and those who will need caregivers.” We all assume roles in caregiving, as my family recently did when my parents moved into our home so we could take care of my father, who has Alzheimer’s. It has been both a great blessing and challenge for my family.
‘The Panini Effect’
Caring for my parents as well as my own child makes me part of the Sandwich Generation. Many family caregivers are financially and emotionally stretched, and struggle to balance care responsibilities with their jobs. But with kids involved, the sandwich generation is really squeezed. I call it the panini effect, because we’re pressed from both sides.
Sandwich Generation members working low-wage jobs with minimum flexibility and support feel the panini effect the most. There’s no way I would refuse to take care of my parents, but no one ever told me about the actual cost of caring for them at home. I am glad to support them, and grateful that I can. But there are many families where this added expense strains the household budget beyond capacity.
Better Policies for Workers and Families
I know that as my father’s condition progresses, my family may need to engage a paid caregiver. Family caregivers, working outside the home, increasingly rely on the support of paid caregivers to ensure that our loved ones can age at home in dignity and safety. So I want to see professional caregivers earn fair wages for their hard work and enjoy the same labor protections as most other workers.
I also want caregiving to be easier and more sustainable for families like mine. Proposals like Universal Family Care (a state-based long-term services and supports benefit) would help families access care across the age spectrum, from child care to elder care, and provide workplace supports like paid leave.
It is time for a fundamental shift in how we value care and those who provide it, and to create 21st-century care solutions for 21st-century families.
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