As a workplace researcher looking at endless spreadsheets, my job is to look at the big picture. Looking at the picture that emerged from the data from our just released report, The Older Adult Caregiver Study, I suddenly saw the small picture, my own story. I could see my father defined by a list of medical conditions. In his mid 70s, he wrestles with everything off the top of that list, from hearing problems down through heart disease.
If I didn’t help out my parents, my father would kill himself to move furniture or do odd jobs around the house. And the day trips I take my father on offer my mother a much-needed respite from caring for my dad.
I’m a son focused on my work, but also focused on helping my parents; and our latest study on elder care has shown me that my family’s elder care experiences are not unique to me, but a collective experience faced by many throughout the country.
A key finding from the study: slightly more working men than working women provided some sort of elder care in the last five years. While the difference between men and women was negligible, it’s clear that the issue of caregiving is not just a women’s issue, but a national issue for us all.
As medical science has advanced, it has managed to extend life, but not necessarily health. More and more people are facing lengthening years at the cost of managing chronic conditions. For many of these conditions treatments can be quite complex and daunting to elders. One of the questions we wanted to explore in our study was the degree to which caregivers were involved in their elder’s medical care and how that impacted individuals’ work.
To answer this question, Families and Work Institute (FWI) partnered with Abbott Nutrition to ask 1,050 people about their experiences with elder care. About 53% of all respondents indicated that they provided “special attention or care for a relative or in-law 65 years old or older—helping with things that were difficult or impossible for them to do themselves,” and 61% provided such care for an adult 50 years old or older in the past five years. More than three quarters of these caregivers (79%) were involved in medical care activities for their elder and were helping an elder manage two or more chronic conditions (77%).
That’s the situation with my father. A man whose life is defined by overcoming disability, watching him bear the weight of his growing list of conditions is both saddening and inspiring. It is saddening to watch him resist the fact that he now must depend on those who used to depend on him. It is inspiring to see him fight to remain a source of love and devotion even if he can no longer be a source of money and physical strength.
While I saw my father embodied in the challenge to thrive in the face of chronic conditions, I saw my mother in the information about the strains of caregiving. Her life is now dominated by medical care, an endless series of doctor appointments and trips to the drugstore. Despite years of traditional cooking, she must now learn to prepare new, healthier foods like more salads that support his health despite his calls for the comfort foods like roast pork and rice that aggravate his conditions. She does all of this while managing her own health conditions.
My mother falls into the 17% of elder caregivers who were elders themselves and the 11% of caregivers who are caring for their spouse/partner. Though caregiving seems to be mostly the children’s responsibility (49% were caring for a parent), many people in our study were caring for other people in their extended families (11%) or for people in their community (13%). For many of these people, like my mother, the responsibility can be hard, and the need for some kind of respite is essential to being the kind of caregiver they want to be throughout their elder’s life.
The Institute’s 2014 National Study of Employers (NSE) shows increases between 2008 and 2014 in the provision of respite care services (3% versus 7%) by employers. While a small increase, this is good news given that 36% of respondents (caregivers and non caregivers alike) said access to respite care was an important benefit for employers to offer. Yet, in The Older Adult Caregiver Study, few caregivers said they would turn to their Human Resource department (7%), Employee Assistance Program (7%) or their coworkers/supervisors (6%) for information about how to provide elder care possibly slowing the continued growth of this option.
Looking at the data and seeing my family reflected in its numbers reminded me of how important it is to not keep these experiences to ourselves and remain in a caregiver closet. For employers, government and society at large to understand how to support caregivers so employees can continue to thrive at work, we need to be open about the challenges we all face or will some day face.