Algerine with her father & mother

Recognizing The 40 Million Family Caregivers

Labor Day, emerged from the labor movement of the late 19th century, becoming a national holiday in 1894. Originally established to both celebrate labor and quell labor unrest, it's now officially "dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers and recognizes the role they have in the on-going growth and prosperity of this country." Until recently, workers from one specific field have not been recognized and in fact have been relatively unknown to many policy makers and the general public -- that group is family caregivers. In 2011 the Bureau of Labor Statistics collected new data as part of their annual "American Time Use Survey," that for the first time counted the number of unpaid eldercare providers in the country. They found that over 40 million individuals, age 15 and older, are care providers to aging family members. This is an astounding number of individuals who dedicate small and large portions of their time to care for a loved one. A labor of love, certainly, but labor nonetheless.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, eldercare providers are "those who provide unpaid care to someone over the age of 65 who needs help because of a condition related to aging." Eldercare can involve a range of activities, "such as assisting with grooming, preparing meals, and providing transportation. Eldercare also can involve providing companionship or being available to assist when help is needed, and thus eldercare can be associated with nearly any activity."

The number of care providers has been assessed before in studies by other organizations, including the National Alliance for Caregivers (NAC) and AARP, but this survey provides an official government study of the population and provides an opportunity to quantify the work being done on a daily basis by the increasing number of caregivers. Family care providers bear the brunt of the long term care needs of our aging population, making up 83% of the total eldercare workforce, according to the NAC & AARP. As a consequence their unpaid work makes a valuable contribution to the overall health care economy. In a study conducted in 2006 the total value of family caregiving's contribution to the nation's long term care was estimated at $350 billion (Gibson and Houser 2007). By 2010, the NAC found that number increased to $375 billion worth of uncompensated care provided by family care providers. Some estimates put it as high as $450 billion.

The U.S. Census Bureau projects that over the next 40 years Americans age 65 and older will double from 40.2 million to 88.5 million. This will greatly increase the demand for eldercare and without a doubt, much of this will be absorbed by family members motivated by family ties, cultural norms, and economic realities. In fact, the Department of Health & Human Services in 2003 estimated that the number of family caregivers will grow by 85% from 2000 to 2050.

This heavy caregiving responsibility has a direct impact on caregivers' employment and financial well being. According to the NAC/AARP study, some working caregivers reported having to take a leave of absence (17 %), shift from full-time to part-time work (10 %), quit work entirely (6 %), lose job benefits (5 %), turn down a promotion (4 %), or choose early retirement (3 %). The effects of this reshuffling of employment causes caregivers to lose wages, pension, and Social Security benefits close to $3 trillion. The amount of financial loss is greater for women because they are more likely to reduce their hours as a result of the burden of caregiving and whether a woman works part-time or full-time, she is more likely to provide basic personal care and financial assistance to a parent.

Below is the picture that emerged from the 2011 Bureau of Labor Statistics American Time Use Survey:

  • 42% of eldercare providers care for a parent, 4% for a spouse or unmarried partner
  • 23% of caregivers are parents of 1 or more children under age 18 (making them part of the sandwich generation)
  • 56 % are women
  • 34% of the caregivers surveyed have provided care for 5 or more years
  • Individuals ages 45 to 54 are most likely at 23% to provide eldercare followed by individuals 55 to 64 (22%) and those age 65 and over (16 %)

On this Labor Day, a day many have off, 40 million Americans will continue to do the work they do every day: helping a loved one get dressed, making a meal, providing medicine, running errands, and more. When you look around at your family, group of friends, and co-workers, be sure to recognize and celebrate the vital work that often goes unnoticed.

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MetLife Foundation The Lippey Family Trust Gladyce L. Foster
California Community Foundation