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Caregiver shortage closes in on boomers

Pamela Yip McClatchy-Tribune

A recent AARP report about the caregiving shortage that aging baby boomers will face should be a wake-up call to talk about this critical issue.

It can no longer be put off.

The pool of family and friends available to care for baby boomers as they age into their 80s will be less than half as deep as it is today, according to the report released late in August by the AARP Public Policy Institute.

AARP experts predict the ratio of potential family caregivers to elders needing care will plummet between now and 2050. It projects the ratio will drop from today’s seven caregivers for each person over age 80 to fewer than three caregivers per elderly person in 2050.

“It’s important to note just how important family caregivers are,” said Donald Redfoot, co-author of the report and a senior strategic policy adviser at the AARP Public Policy Institute. “We’ve been relying on them not only to provide personal care services – helping people get through the normal activities of daily living – but also for a lot of health care services that we think of as skilled nursing.”

Right now, we’re in a “demographic sweet spot” in terms of the number of available caregivers, because boomers have aged into their prime caregiving years, he said. But that will change dramatically.

A key reason is that boomers nationwide have fewer children and other family members to rely on.

“Just simply because of fertility rates over time, the boomers have fewer kids whom they will be able to rely on,” Redfoot said. “Moreover, we’ve seen divorce rates higher among boomers than in their parents’ age group.”

The AARP report put it best:

“The most important predictor of having someone to count on when an individual needs help in long-term services and supports is being married, because spouses and adult children most often arrange, coordinate and provide care and social support.”

Kay Paggi, a Dallas geriatric care manager, said she’s already seeing the dynamic play out as the children of boomers grow up, get jobs and move around the country.

“You can’t move Mom every time you change jobs,” she said.

So what do we do about all this?

“The time is really now to have a national conversation on long-term care,” said Lynn Feinberg, AARP senior policy analyst and report co-author. “We really can’t put this off any longer, because beginning in about 13 years, the oldest baby boomers will turn age 80, and the need will be great.”

First, she said, “what we need to do is to create a financing system for long-term care that works, that builds an accessible and affordable home- and community-based service system.

“What that means is to have better options so that frail, older people can stay at home with or nearby their families, friends, and stay in the community, rather than go to a nursing home, which nobody wants.”

The future of caregiving may consist of an extended network of friends caring for one another.

“We’re going to see a whole different future in terms of care arrangements,” Feinberg said. “There may be ‘Golden Girl’ apartments. There might be also ‘Golden Men’ apartments.”

Let’s not forget respite care for those who need a break from giving 24-hour care, particularly those looking after a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease. Caregivers need to be assured that they can still work while their family member is cared for.

We need to start talking about these issues in our communities and our families so that we can provide our elders with the highest quality of life possible, and no elder will feel he or she will be all alone heading into the most vulnerable, neediest period of life.

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