A new UCLA study finds that caregivers for the aging or disabled are subjected to considerable financial and emotional strain.
Unfortunately, experts believe the strain will intensify as many states deal with cutbacks in services that provide support for home-based care.
The new study looked at family members or friends caring for aging or disabled individuals in California. In California, caregivers represent over 6 million individuals with the helpers characterized by a range of age and individual health status.
Among this group, researchers found higher levels of serious psychological distress and negative health behaviors, such as smoking, compared with the general population.
Of particular concern are an estimated 2.6 million caregivers between the ages of 45 and 64 who may be setting themselves up for an unhealthy future due to higher rates of poor health behaviors, compared with both non-caregivers in the same age range and older caregivers.
“This is the ‘sandwich generation,’ the group of people struggling to meet the needs of both growing children and aging parents, often alone and while holding down full-time jobs,” said Geoffrey Hoffman, the brief’s lead author.
“Caregivers need help, especially as baby boomers age and place even greater strains on their and their families’ abilities to cope.”
Researchers found that the caregivers provide an average of 20 hours of care per week for a friend or relative who can no longer do certain things for themselves, such as bathing, shopping, managing medications or paying bills.
Most caregivers are not reimbursed for their efforts, and few use state services that might help alleviate both financial and psychological burdens.
Experts are concerend that as the population of those 65 and older will more than double in the next 30 years, the magnitude of largely uncompensated care by family and friends will rapidly increase.
“We may be seeing an association between caregiving and stress, where caregivers are both more likely to be seriously depressed and to exhibit certain health behaviors that put them at risk,” Hoffman said.
“These effects on caregivers’ overall health merit attention from policymakers.”
Among the findings:
- Caregivers under stress
Mental health: More than 1 million caregivers report moderate or serious distress levels, with almost one-third reporting that their emotions interfere a lot with their household chores (29.9 percent) or their social lives (32.9 percent).Middle-aged caregivers struggling: Compared with both older caregivers and non-caregivers of the same age, middle-aged caregivers are more likely to binge drink (25.5 percent), smoke (15.9 percent) or be obese (30.1 percent).
Stress and smoking: Caregivers of all ages who reported serious psychological distress were 208 percent more likely to smoke than non-caregivers with serious psychological distress — an exceptional amount.
- Middle-aged caregivers lack support
Nearly one-third (29.0 percent) of middle-aged caregivers are single, divorced or widowed, and more than two-thirds (67.1 percent) hold down full- or part-time jobs. Nearly one-quarter (22.5 percent) are low-income.
- Caregiving is time-intensive
Approximately one-third of caregivers who live with care recipients spend an average of 36 hours on caregiving — almost as much as a full-time job. A majority (62.0 percent) of caregivers of all ages work full or part time.
- Caregivers of all ages under financial strain
Only 7.4 percent of informal caregivers reported being paid for the help they provide. Moreover, nearly 20 percent spent $250 or more of their own money on caregiving in the past month. The strains of caregiving may be alleviated by respite services (short-term temporary relief from duties), yet only 13.5 percent of caregivers report ever using any respite care.
“Family members and friends supporting loved ones in need provide the bulk of personal assistance services and often absorb the high costs of caregiving, both financially and emotionally,” said Dr. Bruce Chernof, president and CEO of The SCAN Foundation, which provided funding for the analysis.
“Programs that support family caregivers can help them create and sustain vulnerable elders in community settings, which promotes the values of dignity, choice and independence as loved ones grow older.”
Recent legislation proposes a voluntary, consumer-funded long-term care insurance program. Policymakers view this initiative as a means to provide cash benefits that could be used to compensate informal caregivers and to purchase needed respite or mental health services.
However, this program is currently under close scrutiny from lawmakers and may not survive impending budgetary adjustments.
Researchers believe this program and additional programs that provide community-based attendant supports and services to disabled individuals requiring an institutional level of care, could significantly lift the burden off of family and other informal caregivers.