TENDING to the needs of aged or infirm family members is nothing new in American society, but there is evidence that the burden for those selfless individuals we refer to as caregivers is getting heavier with an aging population.
More than 50 million people - typically family members or friends who are unpaid - care for someone over age 20 who is ill or disabled, according to the Family Caregiver Alliance.
Thirty-four million adults provide care for other adults over 50. As many as 7 million assist adults over 65 with everyday activities, while 8.9 million care for individuals with dementia.
One recent study put a dollar cost to such care, estimating that the work of family caregivers alone is worth $306 billion annually, a 19 percent increase in four years.
In Ohio, the value was put at $12.12 billion, compared with $10.56 billion in Michigan and $13.41 billion in Pennsylvania.
Moreover, as the aging curve rises steeply with Baby Boomers, these trends are accelerating. More than 70 percent of boomers now have at least one living parent, versus 60 percent in 1989.
While boomer-age Americans tend to believe that they're the first generation ever to have to cope with such responsibilities, the pressures of being a caregiver - both financial and physical - are real.
Because nearly 60 percent of caregivers are employed, the work of caregiving - and it is work, even when it comes from the heart - can lead to conflict over neglecting time at the office and the person in need. At the least, this means frayed nerves; at the worst, mental and physical exhaustion.
Some advocates say government programs should be developed to compensate caregivers for their time and effort, although it is questionable whether the public at large would support some massive and complicated new entitlement.
Indeed, federal law is moving in the opposite direction.
It's now illegal to give assets to family members in order to become eligible for services under Medicaid. Alternately, some attorneys have suggested that caregivers be compensated through modest personal-services contracts.
Paid or not, it is likely that caregivers will continue to tend to their loved ones because of a sense of responsibility deeply ingrained in the American conscience.
Put another way, we take care of each other because that's what families are for.
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