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The Majority of Family Caregivers of the Elderly Are Women

by Carol B. Garrett

Last year President Clinton issued a formal proclamation designating the week of Thanksgiving as National Family Caregivers Week. The purpose of this yearly event is to honor and support the daily contributions of family caregivers throughout the U.S. Seventy-five percent of these caregivers of the nation’s elderly are women. The majority of these women are wives, daughters or daughters-in-law of the care-receivers. One- half of the caregivers work outside the home, and one-quarter of them have children still living at home who also require care.

A mistaken assumption made by many people is that those elderly needing care are residing in nursing homes or other long-term care (LTC) institutions. While there are approximately two million Americans living in LTCs, there are more than 10 million people of all ages needing some assistance with daily living activities who remain in their own homes or in other community based (HCBC) settings. Examples of such HCBC residences would be the home of a relative or a friend, or a group home. The informal caregiving network that meets the needs of these elderly numbers well over 22 million people.

If you are in your late 40’s or older, a quick survey of your own situation or that of your peers will personalize these statistics for you. Over the last seven years while raising my children and working, I have been responsible for the care of my mother- and father-in-law, and that of my mother. In the past few months one of my friends placed not only her mother, but also her mother-in-law and her husband’s aunt in an assisted living environment. This friend works full-time and still has two children living at home. Another acquaintance cared for her mother-in-law in her home for several years before the mother-in-law’s death. Now, she is supervising her mother’s care from a distance and is the person responsible for overseeing the care of her deceased mother-in-law’s childhood friend. These are not unusual examples. And, as those of us who have placed our care recipients in facilities outside our home are well aware, caregiving does not stop once our elderly relatives are placed in an assisted living or long-term care environment.

The care provided by this network of family and friends is called informal caregiving. Informal caregiving is defined as unpaid care that is provided to a person aged 65 or older who requires assistance with daily living activities. These activities can fall into one of four broad categories. The categories are: emotional support, direct service assistance, liaison with the formal service sector, and financial assistance.

While the need for assistance can happen as the result of a sudden and catastrophic occurrence, such as a major stroke or heart-attack, caregivers often find that they begin with small steps and can eventually find themselves overwhelmed with responsibilities. These initial small steps are usually in the direct services assistance category. Frequently it starts with yard-work, then heavy house cleaning, shopping and assistance in getting to doctor’s appointments. Financial assistance includes not only the direct payment of money to help with expenses, but also the paper work that concerns household finances - paying bills, balancing the check book, filing medical insurance papers, etc. Soon the caregiver finds that several to many hours per week are being spent caring for the care-receiver.

Studies by the Family Care Research Project in the Michigan State University Colleges of Human Medicine and Nursing have shown that the multiple demands of work outside of home and caring for an elder family member results in many women leaving the work force or taking extended unpaid leaves of absence in order to care for their relative. Quitting their jobs creates serious consequences for these caregiving women. The surveys showed that they not only harm their careers, they are also less physically and emotionally healthy, and they weaken their chances for a secure financial position in the future. By leaving the work force, they cut their chances for higher Social Security and private pension benefits in their own later years of life.

In order to protect themselves both financially and emotionally, caregivers need to tap other resources, both informal and formal. Primary caregivers must require other family members to provide them with some type of respite care on a regular basis. Where family members are not available, community assistance can often be obtained through the formal caregiving sector. The best way to tap this sector is by contacting the local Area Agency on Aging. If this agency cannot be found in the blue-pages of the phone book it can be located by calling the Eldercare Locator (800) 677-1116, Monday through Friday, 9:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m., Eastern Standard Time. The caller should have the address, zip code and county of residence for the person needing assistance in front of them when placing the call.

Caregivers with access to the internet can find much useful information at the following sites:

Excerpted from WOMANSWORD, Vol. 2, Issue 11, November 1997 Issue.




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