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America Is Running Out of Family Caregivers, Just When It Needs Them Most

by Lindsey Nathan on 7 August 2018 14:39pm 1692

US caregiver shortage

This was the headline of a recent Wall Street Journal (WSJ) article (20 July 2018); it really caught my eye because I fear that the UK is in the same position or is certainly headed that way. As a nation we need to think creatively about this mounting social care issue and find new ways to meet the increasing need for support and care as we age.

Just days after reading this, the following headline in the Guardian newspaper (6 August, 2018) made it quite evident that we could soon be in the same predicament: Care worker shortage after Brexit 'will force women to quit jobs'.

The Department of Health has warned that women will be forced to quit their jobs to look after ill or ageing relatives if the supply of EU care workers is severed after Brexit. Data taken from the 2011 Census shows women are more likely to take on caring roles than men; of the 5.78 million unpaid carers in England and Wales, 58% – 3.35 million – are women.

Changing family dynamics
The big problem for the US and the UK is that smaller, more far-flung families mean fewer unpaid helpers – daughters, nieces, sons and nephews aren’t necessarily on the doorstep to help as they have been for previous generations.

In the past, America relied on family members to keep ageing loved ones in their homes. Today, just as in the UK, many Americans are growing older without family nearby, offering a glimpse of what the future may hold for those approaching retirement.

For America’s newly retired population the caregiving crunch has come at a time when they’re facing a financial squeeze; their average income and retirement fund haven’t risen in years and they have high average debt, some incurred from taking care of their own aging parents.

Unpaid care stretched to the limit
According to a 2017 Merrill Lynch study, an estimated 34.2 million Americans provide unpaid care to those 50 and older. These family caregivers, described as ‘the backbone of the nation’s long-term care system’, provide an estimated $500 billion worth of free care annually—three times Medicaid’s professional long-term care spending—and help keep people out of costly care homes.

The problem is that the supply of these caregivers is shrinking just as the nation needs them most. The ratio ‘across the pond’ of caregivers to care recipients peaked in 2010 and has been falling ever since, in large part because of changing family dynamics.

Even when adult children do stay in the area, they are often working full-time and have children of their own to care for. In our experience it’s just the same here - many working parents that we speak to give what they can of their time, but people can’t get enough help when they grow older, especially when they are alone 24 hours a day.

Demand for carers is outstripping supply
According to the WSJ article, demand for private home health aides in the US is expected to exceed supply by more than 3 million in the next decade. Many can’t afford it even if it was available.

New ideas are needed
Families, friends and neighbours are putting together a patchwork of support, which can come under strain at the first sign of a broken hip. Some grow old on their own. Close to Hand’s aim is to help older people and their families construct a network of local helpers to extend the time that they can live independently in their own homes.

Baby boomers, often caregivers themselves for grandchildren and ageing parents, are going to need support. For many, it is unclear who will provide it.

The WSJ article quotes Ken Dychtwald, CEO of Age Wave, a consulting firm, who says: “We’re going to have to look to non-traditional care. Older adults may have to take in boarders, who can help with shopping and repairs, or rely more on monitoring devices and delivery services.”

Technology can alert remote caregivers to emergencies and keep families in touch, but it doesn’t take the place of having someone there to make sure the cupboards are stocked with food and that there’s milk in the fridge.

Looking to the future
We’re all living longer, working longer and having to live off our savings for longer. Close to Hand is a progressive company wanting to find practical ways to help older people, so that they can look to their advancing years without fear of being alone and uncared for. Our online platform puts older people and their relatives firmly in control of the support they need at home and gives them choice as they browse through the registered Home Helpers and select the person or people suited to them.


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