‘Sandwich generation’ makes care a priority, but at what cost?

As relatives age, the "sandwich generation" bears the burden. Credit: Colourbox
As relatives age, the “sandwich generation” bears the burden.
Credit: Colourbox

With life expectancy on the rise and baby boomers becoming of a certain age, the U.S. population is facing an unprecedented demographic shift with a growing need for caregivers to address the needs of its elderly population. And the women and men of the “sandwich generation” — those caring for their children as well as a family member who is aging— are the ones feeling the most pressure.

According to the National Alliance for Caregiving and the AARP, more than 65 million Americans provide care for a family member across the United States. Not to be confused with professional caregivers, family caregivers are usually untrained and often hold a full-time job while helping their relative by running errands, accompanying them to medical appointments, preparing meals and providing general care. Family caregivers shoulder the majority of long-term care in the United States — an estimated $450 billion in unpaid labor every year, according the AARP.

Jody Gastfriend, vice president of senior care services at Care.com, a global company that connects consumers with caregivers, has more than 25 years of experience in the senior care industry. Gastfriend explains that most people believe that a family member can bear the responsibility of caring for an aging relative but that, over a longer period of time and without proper preparation and help, they will start feeling the stress, which can affect their entire family. “Providing care to a relative involves a number of obstacles that most people are not aware of,” she says.

In light of National Family Caregivers Month in November, Gastfriend says that families should do their best to anticipate a health crisis and do their research on long-term care options.  Understanding in advance what type of care might be needed and determining what the family is able to provide in terms of time, care and medical expenses can help save a lot of time, energy and money, she says. Gastfriend adds that caring for a relative should be a group effort that involves several family members and close friends. Gastfriend also stresses that the primary caregiver should always make sure to save some “me time” to be able to relax and avoid burnout.

The situations of family caregivers vary greatly. They can be younger or older, with a medical background or no training at all, and their commitment can be around-the-clock or intermittent, short-term or long-term, and requiring anything from basic assistance to specific skills. Regardless of their situation, a number of studies have shown that the responsibilities of caregiving can have a strong physical, emotional and psychological impact on the caregiver, which can lead to burnout manifesting as depression and anger. This is especially true if the care recipient suffers from a severe illness such as Alzheimer’s or dementia.

The aging U.S. population has created some great challenges, especially for Social Security and Medicare. However, just as so many industries are shrinking with the current economic crisis, caregiving industries are opening up opportunities for professionals and businesses that provide essential services to seniors or people with disabilities or illnesses. For young people looking for a safe career path, caregiving is as close as many will come to a sure bet.


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