America faces a shortage of caregivers

A hospice family support volunteer holds hands with her client in 2006.
A hospice family support volunteer holds hands with her client in 2006. TRAVIS LONG

There is a lot of discussion today about our divided nation. Extreme partisanship, economic inequality, racism, the urban/rural schism, gender conflict – take your pick of topics. But the aging American population holds the potential to unite many of us. Regardless of our differences, people we care about may soon need our help. And we aren’t ready to help them.

Depending on who is doing the counting there are about 40 to 60 million caregivers in our country, a huge number. That number is certain to rise. For one thing, aging among 75 million baby boomers hasn’t even peaked yet. Women, now a majority of the workforce, are no longer tasked with caregiving responsibilities as a matter of course, though they are still a majority in the caregiving ranks. Immigrants and undocumented persons are an important source of caregiving labor. Uncertainty about their future residency will force more family members to undertake caregiving duties.

Most of us will be thrust into caring for an aging parent or disabled relative without any preparation. We will be blind-sided by the complexity of elder care services, baffled by the changing health care system, confounded by the puzzle of health insurance, overwhelmed by paperwork and the demand for documentation. We have little understanding of the types and levels of care: home-based, hospitalization, rehabilitation, nursing homes or various kinds of assisted care, including privately-run family care homes, commercial assisted-care facilities, adult day care. We will be shocked by the expense and largely unaware of the hidden financial risks and threats to our personal wellbeing that the caregiving role can pose.

There’s just so much.

Welcome to America’s fastest-growing job category. Yes, caregiving is a job. It requires working on demand because there are no regular hours. And by the way, the most common type – care provided by family members – is unpaid. Many female caregivers face the triple whammy: tending a dependent aging relative while working a full-time job and caring for their own children. In other cases, elderly spouses – many with serious health issues of their own – struggle to care for disabled mates. About one million minors, some as young as 10 and 12, also shoulder caregiving responsibilities.

That caregiving is an emerging crisis can be found in recent action taken by Congress to establish a national caregiving policy. But waiting for an act of Congress probably isn’t the answer. Every one of us who are getting older or has aging parents friends or neighbors who may be at future risk of some health-related dependency needs to think through the caregiving challenge.

For most of us, there will be some encounter with caregiving in our future. A good place to start preparing is with conversation. A personal conversation. A family conversation. A community conversation. A national conversation. This is a challenge we all face equally, regardless of our differences. Maybe this is the one issue on which we can come together and figure out good solutions that work well for each family, and for the good of our society as a whole. We have the opportunity. So much hangs in the balance.

Willetha King Barnette of Durham has been a caregiver and a hospice volunteer, and is the author of “The Caregiver’s Secrets.”