The Forgotten Caregivers: Is Elder Care Our Next Big Crisis?
When dual income families have a baby, either one spouse stays home or they hire childcare. But what happens when they now also have to care for aging parents? For the first time in America’s sprawling history, we are facing a caregiving crisis for an entire generation. Men and women are waiting longer to start their families and their elderly parents are running out of pensions and savings. This combination is leaving many people in their “sandwich years” (between children and parents) in a time when both healthcare and childcare costs are skyrocketing and wages are remaining stagnant.
So, what are the adult children in the middle supposed to do? Men and women across the country who already had to decide whether or not to stay home with their growing children now have to face aging parents who need more care than they can give on weekends and evenings. Parents who already dropped out of the workforce to care for growing children are now tasked with dividing their time between children and adult caregiving activities, many of which they are not qualified to perform.
This problem isn’t just a small issue. An estimated 34 million Americans provide care for an older family member. And for adult children stuck in the middle, the financial, emotional, and mental costs can be staggering.
The Costs of Care
The cost of raising a child from birth to age 18 has skyrocketed. Forget about paying for college unless you have a strong investment portfolio and a high-paying job. Parents today are more worried about making it through the toddler years. According to a study from the Economic Policy Institute, a parent working full time for minimum wage in Hawaii would have to work from January to September to afford one year of childcare, and all of her/his wages would be dedicated to it. This same study determined that the costs of childcare were higher than the costs of rent in 500 of the 618 areas included in the study. In 24 states, the annual cost of childcare is higher than the average annual cost of tuition at a 4-year college. This begs the question, is childcare worth it? For most people, the answer is no.
On the other side of the coin, we have the increasing costs of adult healthcare and medical needs. Sixty-three percent of adult children say they have no idea how they will pay for their parents’ care over the next five years. If they leave their jobs to provide the care themselves, they will lose out on income and retirement benefits. If they stay in their jobs, they may be unable to provide adequate care, as many aging parents need round the clock care. This leaves the option of hiring out the care. The cost of full time care is hard to calculate, since prices vary heavily depending on your location and the kind of care your parents need, but expect to pay somewhere between $2,000-$10,000/month for full-time care. You’ll also have other expenses like medical bills, rising insurance premiums, hearing aids, walkers, medications, and other unexpected costs, all of which can add up quickly.
Physical and Emotional Toll
In addition to the financial toll of caregiving for your parents, there is an emotional toll. The first hit comes from exhaustion. About 53% of adult children who care for aging parents are investing more than 40 hours each week to their care - the equivalent of a full time job. A shocking 37% provide more than 80 hours. And 21% never get a break. For adult children giving 40or more hours to their parents while balancing children and sometimes a job, things like sleep, exercise, and self-care are simply no longer priorities. This takes a toll on our mental well-being and physical health.
Additionally, caring for elderly parents puts adult children in an awkward and often challenging position. When we begin to care for our parents, we no longer fit squarely in the “son” or “daughter” category. We need to start taking on a parental role to our own parents. This can wrack caregivers with guilt and frustration. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough resources to teach caregivers how to navigate this new role with minimal damage to their mental health or their relationships with their parents and other family members.
Long Term Consequences
The choice to leave the workforce to care for aging parents affects both men and women long after their parents have passed away. But the choice is especially detrimental to women. Women above age 50 make up half of the total long-term unemployment in America. To make matters worse, women who take time off to care for family have more trouble than men finding employment when they are ready to reenter the job force. According to Sara E. Rix, an analyst and former senior researcher for AARP, “Older displaced women are less likely than displaced men of the same ages to be re-employed and more likely to have left the labor force.”
The long term financial consequences of leaving the workforce to care for elderly parents can also be steep. Men and women who leave the workforce stand to lose $303,880 in lifetime wages and retirement benefits.
The Up Side
Caring for parents and children at the same time is certainly a challenge. It can be mentally, emotionally, and financially draining. And regrettably, there are far too few resources out there for people in the sandwich years. But there is also something incomparably rewarding and beautiful about being there to care for your parents in their golden years. Take it from Maria Vizzi, a business owner living in NYC and caring for her aging parents. "This caregiving is a choice and in many ways, a blessing...I hear anecdotes from Dad as he recalls wartime in Sicily. They spoil me in small but meaningful ways.” Caring for your parents is a one-time opportunity. If you are able and willing to find outside care, then by all means, feel free and welcome to do so. However, if you find yourself toggling between karate classes and doctor’s visits, remember, this too shall pass.
We are in the midst of an American fiscal crisis, and nobody is talking about it. Moving forward, we need to open conversations about caring for elderly parents and other relatives. We need to open up paid leave to include care for the elderly, and we need better support systems for adults bridging the gap between their children and their aging parents. And for adults who choose to leave the workforce to care for their loved ones, we need comprehensive reentry programs to help get people back into the workforce. When people feel free and able to care for their ailing loved ones without taking a financial hit, and when our economy can bounce back easily through reentry into the labor force, we all win.