This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on April 9, 2014.
A Harvard report released last month provides statistics to back up what millions of Baby Boomers supporting aging parents already suspected. The vast majority of long-term care in the United States takes place at home, and 43.5 million friends and family members are the unpaid caregivers.
The report, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, reveals that most caregivers are women and that the hours they spend assisting their loved one usually equates to a part-time job. As the U.S. population ages, the problem is likely to worsen because there will be fewer caregivers to go around.
“Unpaid and untrained family caregivers must handle medical devices, medications, and treatments that were once restricted to clinicians,” said an editorial that accompanied the study. “Indeed, family caregivers provide most of the hands-on care – often for years without a break, without pay, vacation, recognition, backup, or help.”
As a result, the study says, caregivers are likely to suffer depression, physical ailments, social isolation and financial problems. The editorials call on doctors to identify who is caring for their patients at home and make them aware of community support options – like adult day care, home health aides or even services to help with the cooking, cleaning and transportation for patients – to give caregivers a break.
Employers can help, too, by providing flexible work hours, paid time off or other financial or mental health assistance to employees caring for a loved one.
Here’s a look at the numbers behind America’s unpaid caregivers.
By 2030, there will likely be twice as many Americans older than 85 than there were in 2000. By 2050, it could be double what it was in 2030. That’s according to population projections from the Department of Health and Human Services Administration on Aging.
As the number of elderly Americans doubles, the number of family members and friends who could be caregivers will shrink. AARP projects that by 2030 there will be four people ages 45 to 64 to care for one person over age 80. That’s a steep decline from 2010, when the ratio was 7-to-1. Most of the potential caregivers are the aging populations’ adult children.
The average number of hours per week caregivers spend supporting their ill friend or family member. Twenty percent of caregivers said they spend more than 40 hours a week, according to the Harvard report.
The estimated value of care each person with dementia receives from unpaid friends and family members each year, according to another study cited in the Harvard report. This surpasses the average yearly per-patient spending on formal home health care or nursing facilities.