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Weiss: In 2050, Where Have All the Family Caregivers Gone?

Monday, April 23, 2018

 

The year 2030 marks an important demographic turning point in U.S. history according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2017 National Population Projections, released last month.  By 2030, older people are projected to outnumber children.  In the next twenty years, when these aging baby boomers enter their 80s, who will provide informal caregiving to them.

Almost three years earlier, in a July 2015 report, “Valuing the Invaluable: 2015 Update Undeniable Progress, but Big Gaps Remain,” the AARP Public Policy Institute warned that fewer family members will be around to assist older people with caregiving needs.  

According to AARP’s 25-page report, coauthored by Susan C. Reinhard, Lynn Friss Feinberg, Rita Choula, and Ari Houser, the ratio of potential family caregivers to the growing number of older people has already begun a steep decline. In 2010, there were 7.2 potential family caregivers for every person age 80 and older. By 2030, that ratio will fall sharply to 4 to 1, and is projected to drop further to 3 to 1 in 2050.  

Family caregivers assisting relatives or close friends afflicted with chronic, disabling, or serious illness, to carry out daily activities (such as bathing or dressing, preparing meals, administering medications, driving to doctor visits, and paying bills), are key to keeping these individuals in their homes and out of costly nursing facilities.  What is the impact on care of aging baby boomers when family caregivers no longer provide assistance in daily activities?  

“In 2013, about 40 million family caregivers in the United States provided an estimated 37 billion hours of care to an adult with limitations in daily activities. The estimated economic value of their unpaid contributions was approximately $470 billion in 2013, up from an estimated $450 billion in 2009,” notes AARP’s caregiver report.  What will be the impact on the nation’s health care system without family caregivers providing informal care?

The Census Bureau’s 2017 National Population Projections, again puts the spot light on the decreasing caregiver ratio over the next decades identified by the AARP Policy Institute, one that must be planned for and addressed by Congress, federal and state policy makers.

Who Will Take Care of Aging Baby Boomers?

With the expansion in the size of the older population, 1 in every 5 United States residents will be retirement age.  Who will provide informal caregiving in our nation with a larger adult population and less children to serve as caregivers?

“The aging of baby boomers means that within just a couple decades, older people are projected to outnumber children for the first time in U.S. history,” said Jonathan Vespa, a demographer with the U.S. Census Bureau. “By 2035, there will be 78.0 million people 65 years and older compared to 76.4 million under the age of 18.”

The 2030s are projected to be a transformative decade for the U.S. population, says the 2017 statistical projections – the population is expected to grow at a slower pace, age considerably and become more racially and ethnically diverse.  The nation’s median age is expected to grow from age 38 today to age 43 by 2060. 

 The Census Bureau also observed that that as the population ages, the ratio of older adults to working-age adults, also known as the old-age dependency ratio, is projected to rise. By 2020, there will be about three-and-a-half working-age adults for every retirement-age person. By 2060, that ratio will fall to just two-and-a-half working-age adults for every retirement-age person.

Real Challenges Face Congress as the Nation Ages

Jean Accius, Ph.D., AARP Policy Institute’s Vice President, Independent Living, Long-Term Services and Supports, says, “The recent Census report highlights the sense of urgency to develop innovative solutions that will support our growing older adult population at a time when there will likely be fewer family caregivers available to help. The challenges that face us are real, but they are not insurmountable. In fact, this is an opportunity if we begin now to lay the foundation for a better system of family support for the future. The enactment of the RAISE (Recognize, Assist, Include, Support and Engage) Family Caregivers Act, which would create a strategy for supporting family caregivers, is a great path forward.”

Max Richtman, President and CEO of the Washington, DC-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, gives his take on the Census Bureau’s 2017 statistical projections, too.   

 “Despite how cataclysmic this may sound, the rising number of older people due to the aging of baby boomers is no surprise and has been predicted for many years. This is why the Social Security system was changed in 1983 to prepare for this eventuality. Under current law, full benefits will continue to be paid through 2034 and we are confident that Congress will make the necessary changes, such as raising the wage cap, to ensure that full benefits continue to be made well into the future,” says Richtman.

 Richtman calls informal caregiving “a critical part of a care plan” that enhances an older person’s well-being.  “While there currently are programs such as the Medicaid Waiver that will pay family members who provide caregiving support more can be done to incentivize caregiving so that loss of personal income and Social Security work credits are not barriers to enlisting the help of younger individuals to provide informal support services,” he says.  

Adds Richtman, the Medicare and Medicaid benefits which reimburse for the home-based services and skilled nursing care “will be unduly strained ”as the diagnosed cases of Alzheimer’s disease skyrockets with the growing boomer population.  He calls on Congress to “immediately provide adequate research funding to the National Institutes of Health to accelerate finding a cure in order to save these programs and lower the burdens on family caregivers and the healthcare system. “ 

Finally, AARP Rhode Island State Director Kathleen Connell, says “Our aging population represents challenges on many, many fronts, including healthcare, housing, Social Security, Medicare and, of course, caregiving. It would be nice to think everything would take care of itself if there were more younger people than older people. But that misses the point entirely. The needs of older Americans are a challenge to all Americans, if for no other reason than most of us end up with multiple late in life needs. And too many reach that point without savings to cover those needs.”

“It’s worth noting, by the way, that many of the solutions will come from people 50 and older -- many of whom will work longer in their lives to improve the lives of older Americans. We need to stop looking through the lens of ‘old people’ being the problem and instead encourage and empower older Americans to take greater control over their lives as they help others,” says Connell.

“Congress needs to focus on common sense solutions to assure families that Social Security and Medicare are protected. The healthcare industry needs to face the medical challenges. And at the state and local level, we must focus on home and community-based health services,” adds Connell.

For details about the Census Bureau’s 2017 statistical projections, co to http://www.census.gov/newsroom/press-releases/2018/cb18-41-population-projections.html.

For more information about AARP’s July 2015 caregiver report, go to http://www.aarp.org/content/dam/aarp/ppi/2015/valuing-the-invaluable-2015-update-new.pdf.

Herb Weiss, LRI’12, is a Pawtucket writer covering aging, healthcare and medical issues. To purchase Taking Charge: Collected Stories on Aging Boldly, a collection of 79 of his weekly commentaries, go to herbweiss.com.

 

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