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Support Is Needed for Caregivers | Commentary

Too often, we limit our discussion about the care of older Americans to support for Medicare and Social Security. That’s important, but there are additional challenges that threaten the economic security of this constituency — and those challenges are daunting.

The vast majority of care in this country is provided by family and friends who serve as caregivers; 49 million Americans provide more than $520 billion in care to seniors and adults with disabilities every year. They provide that care because they want to, but they also provide it because they have to.

Many of those who need care cannot afford to pay for the services that would help them remain independent, but they have just enough money to be ineligible for Medicaid and the support services it would provide. So their family members or friends pitch in to fill in the gaps where they can, keeping a loved one out of a high-cost nursing home.

Here is what that means for the average family:

The average family caregiver is a 49-year-old woman taking care of her mother for nearly 20 hours per week.

That’s an additional 20 hours per week, on top of a full-time job; or for many of those women, it’s 20 hours per week of lost income.

That equates to about $21,000 in lost income annually.

I share a similar experience; I am a caregiver for my mother. I have called dozens of doctors’ offices and hospitals and insurance companies to help my mom get the care she needs.

And on top of this, caregivers have significant responsibilities of their own to take care of on a day-to-day basis. They have a full-time job, or one or two part-time jobs, and they do what they can to get their loved one through the day and bridge any gaps on nights and weekends. So I know the value of what caregivers do.

But beyond that, I know they deserve policies at every level that provide the support they need to care for their loved ones and live healthy, productive lives of their own.

I introduced a bill in Congress that would provide caregivers that support while also creating a unique opportunity for individuals interested in exploring a new and growing career field. The National Care Corps Act would place volunteers in communities to work with seniors and individuals with disabilities who need a little extra support to live independently.

In return for their service, volunteers would receive health insurance and other benefits, along with a post-service educational award. This award could be used to pay for up to two years of attendance at an institution of higher education, or to pay back educational loans.

I see this program as a great opportunity for volunteers and older adults and individuals with disabilities.

But fundamentally, I think this program could help fill the gaps for caregivers when they need someone to take their sister to her appointment while they’re at work, or to make sure their dad takes his medication while they attend a parent-teacher conference.

As urgent as this issue is now, it will only become more so over the next several years. As the baby boom generation continues to age, demand for services will increase, and the gap between the number of caregivers and direct care workers and the number of people who need services will continue to grow.

As we move forward with these productive discussions about the health care policy, let’s always keep in mind the economic security of older Americans. They deserve to age with dignity, and their family caregivers should still aspire to be part of a thriving middle class.

Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham is a Democrat from New Mexico.