Raising Awareness for Caregivers

Why is family caregiving an important issue today? Kathleen Van De Wille sat down with Michelle Baker.

This month is National Family Caregiver’s Month. How can individuals get involved in raising awareness of caregiving?

This month is an important moment in time to focus on programs, policies and people supporting family caregivers – the 44 million people who wake up every day and schedule appointments, fill out medical paperwork, complete complex care regimens, and serve as advocates for loved ones. That doesn’t happen just this month, but every single day. And the burdens are increasing.  

In the last few decades, care services that used to be provided in healthcare settings are now done at home by family members who often have no medical training. Policymakers, payers, employers, and others must to step in to offer support. There are many wonderful organizations providing resources and raising awareness, such as the Caregiver Action Network, which I am a part of. But more still needs to be done.

Why is family caregiving an important issue today?

The silver tsunami is coming. Baby boomers are aging and their need for caregiving is going to have serious consequences for our healthcare infrastructure. Advancements in medicine mean that people are living longer with chronic diseases. There are significant challenges managing the care of loved ones with dementia, cancer, heart disease and multiple chronic conditions. Rising healthcare costs and demand have formed something of a perfect storm, requiring innovative thinking from policymakers and organizations to meet looming caregiving challenges.

What are some of the issues facing family caregivers today?

One important issue is that caregivers’ own health is often over overlooked. This includes both physical and emotional health. As a caregiver, life is often solitary and filled with a series of never-ending medical appointments and responsibilities.  At the same time caregivers are also mourning and enduring the suffering of loved ones.  In fact, family caregivers have twice the rate of heart disease, diabetes and arthritis as non-caregivers.  And given that women are two-thirds of unpaid caregivers, we see lower rates of mammograms and other routine testing. Caregivers are also at increased risk of depression and anxiety.  Quite simply they lack the time to practice self-care, make healthy meals, and get to their own doctor’s appointments.

What steps do you think lawmakers and companies could do to increase support for family caregivers?

Lawmakers have already taken some steps in the right direction.  This year the RAISE Family Caregivers Act was signed into law. This legislation requires HHS to provide more resources for family caregivers. Also, corporations are increasingly supporting workers with caregiving responsibilities including expanded caregiving benefits and resources to help them in their search for medical, legal and community support. This is important because the “sandwich generation” – people caring for aging parents and children – is comprising more and more of the workforce.

Are there any healthcare technologies on the horizon that could help family caregivers?

Technology is innovating caregiving in many ways.  It helps deliver care through telemedicine, automated pill dispensers and monitors.  For example there is a pill bottle that tells you if your loved one has taken their pills.  Smart homes and motion-sensing technologies allow caregivers to monitor a loved one’s mobility while at work or far away – did they get out of bed, move around the house.  And there is the added backup of emergency response systems to automatically alert 911 in the event of a fall or other issue. And the emotional connection tech can provide is key.  From something as standard as video chats with distant grandchildren to virtual reality designed to specifically trigger memories of old neighborhoods and experiences.  Technology will continue to support caregivers and make their lives easier.

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