Almost overnight, the Covid-19 pandemic laid bare a simple truth many of us have tried for years to bring to light: our economy breaks down when people cannot balance work with caring for their family and loved ones. With 48 million people providing mostly unpaid care, family caregiving has largely been a personal matter: something that happens behind closed doors and up to individuals to figure out.
Millions of caregivers are now working from home while caring for children or aging parents. And millions of essential workers must make impossible choices. Live without a paycheck, or come home to a sick child, an aging parent, or a spouse with a disability and put vulnerable lives at risk?
The pandemic is also changing the future of caregiving. An entire generation is watching and experiencing the crisis unfolding in our nation’s nursing homes. Now, families face difficult decisions about trusting their loved one’s care to a nursing home or taking on even more responsibility to provide care at home.
With the Covid-19 pandemic, we see a rare opportunity to do something bold and lasting as our nation responds.
It’s not enough to return to a patchwork system of public and private supports for people who care for aging or ill loved ones. We must seize this moment to create meaningful, sustainable change: in state and federal policy, business practice, and community response. The work of family caregiving is critical to reviving our national economy. We cannot ask people to return to work without knowing they have the time, resources and support they need to meet their responsibilities at home and on the job.
Today’s family caregivers are a diverse cohort and not who you’d think. While the average age of a family caregiver is 49 years, almost half are under the age of 50, one in four is a Millennial, and forty percent are people of color. This labor of love requires an average of 24 hours of care each week, or the equivalent of more than a part-time job. And since 2015, there are more than 8 million new family caregivers providing care to someone 18 or older.
Now, as these caregivers are grappling with their new reality, we need to look ahead. In the short term, we must provide immediate support. But in the longer term, we must address the barriers that prevent older adults from remaining safely in their homes and communities, and consider new models for care. And we truly hope family caregivers are finally recognized and supported as a provider group in the health care delivery system, as they’ve always provided more cost-effective and preferred care for aging loved ones in the home.
From our perch — as the nation’s largest organization dedicated to empowering Americans 50 and older to choose how they live as they age — AARP knows a goal this big demands bold action. That’s why we will continue to be a strong voice on the RAISE Family Caregivers advisory council and remain steadfast in our federal and state advocacy. We will mobilize entrepreneurs and innovators to pilot new solutions for older adults and engage the business and consumer sectors to provide needed benefits and support. And throughout, we will keep organizing and growing the constituency of caregivers to join us in this vital work.
We all want our economy up and running again, but we cannot just flip the sign on the door and go back to the status quo. Especially during and after the pandemic — caregivers need a solid system behind them to fulfill their responsibilities at home and on the job. We can build that system with smart policies, better business practices, and a health care system that prioritizes people’s quality of life and well-being throughout life. At AARP, that’s the future we’ve been demanding for decades: only now, it’s more urgent than ever to succeed.