ATLANTA — Karen Williams doesn't need to read the statistics about a crisis in care-giving for older adults that is sweeping the nation.
She lives it every day.
Ms. Williams, a sales manager for IBM, sometimes feels like a circus juggler trying to balance her family, a high-stress job, conference calls and caring for her 87-year-old mother, who suffers from diabetes, multiple sclerosis and other health problems.
"I'm learning a lot about the health of the elderly, and I'm learning new things every day," said Ms. Williams, who is thankful she can often work from her Stone Mountain, Ga., home, which she and her husband expanded to make room when her mother came to live with them a few years ago. "Every day is a challenge."
Ms. Williams is far from alone.
The nation is experiencing a caregiver crisis that is going to get worse, said Leisa Easom, executive director of the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregiving at Georgia Southwestern State University in Americus.
The crisis will be further fueled by an older population that is growing and living longer with chronic illnesses, combined with shortages in some areas of health care.
Ms. Williams' mother requires constant care. Ms. Williams says she's lucky because her mother had long-term care insurance, which pays part of the tab for assistance. But some of the care benefits are ending soon, which will force more responsibility on Ms. Williams, her family and a sister who lives in another state. Taking care of her mother requires a tremendous amount of organization.
"I'm trying to cover all of my mother's requirements, but no matter how well I try to anticipate and cover them, things pop up," she said. For example, Ms. Williams said she has been out of town for work and had to suddenly return home when an issue arose.
The National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP estimated in a 2009 report that there were more than 65 million unpaid family caregivers to an adult or child.
And much of the responsibility falls on women. The average caregiver is female, in her mid- to late-40s, married and working outside the home, experts say. Female caregivers may spend as much as 50 percent more time providing care than male caregivers.
Caring for an elderly parent or sick relative is perhaps one of the most difficult and stressful times for an individual, said Clarice W. Dowdle, the chief operating officer of Atlanta-based Senior Caregiving Today and author of "Time for the Talk: The Ten Step Plan for Effective Senior Caregiving Today."
When many people are placed in the role of caregiver, they have no idea about the emotional and financial commitment it involves.
Easom said the caregiver is the one often most overlooked. She said caregivers have a 63 percent higher mortality rate than noncaregivers and twice the rate of chronic illnesses.
The Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregiving, in partnership with Phoebe Sumter Medical Center, operates a caregiver support center. One caller said she made sure her relative went to the doctor all the time but realized she had not made an appointment with her own doctor in three years.
Caregivers sometimes suffer from depression and other health issues.
"In their desperation, sometimes the caregiver becomes the casualty because they have cared for their loved one at the cost of themselves," Easom said. "That's not an option. Care giving can be very rewarding, but it can also be exhausting, and we need to prevent that exhaustion though evidence-based support programs."
Caregiving is not for everybody, said Ms. Williams of Stone Mountain, Ga.
It requires patience, understanding, a willingness to do what's needed and "a thick skin at times," she said.
But every caregiver interviewed said while it was stressful and hard work, there was also the reward of being able to help their parents and spend more time with them.
Ellen Weaver Hartman, a public relations executive, said she found a silver lining in being able to care for her mother, who moved to Atlanta when she got older. Her mom died in 2010 at age 89.
"You get incredibly close to the person that you are taking care of," she said. "While it is stressful, I also treasured every day with my mom and knew that if she had not had gotten sick, I would not have strengthened my bonds with her. She was my best friend and she knew it."