Caregivers' Value Defies a Number

Article excerpt

Byline: Mary Lou Cowlishaw

In my youth, I did not walk 5 miles to school barefoot in the winter, uphill both ways.

Those who make such claims often long for "the good old days," but I doubt whether those times really were good.

For instance, there is an idea that in "the good old days," families took care of their older relatives but that they no longer do so.

On the contrary, families today probably are providing more care than in previous generations because seniors now live much longer, even though chronic debilitating conditions often limit their independence.

The American Association of Retired Persons estimates 22.4 million people are caregivers for their older relatives, about 23 percent of the adult population in the United States.

The term "caregiver" includes not only family members but friends, neighbors, church members and others who voluntarily respond to a senior's needs. They actually provide the majority of care in America for older people.

The typical caregiver is a middle-aged woman who works outside the home, who has children under age 18 living at home and who helps the older person an average of 18 hours per week. Women caring for their parents are the most typical caregivers, but about one-fourth of caregivers are men, and most caregivers older than 60 are caring for their spouses.

In Illinois, an estimated 1.1 million caregivers each provided an average of almost 1,000 hours of care in 1997, with a total value of approximately $8.6 billion. But until recently, that value was overlooked in computing the true cost of caregiving in America.

One of the major changes made to the federal Older Americans Act when it was overhauled in December 2000 was the addition of the National Family Caregiver Support Program and a $125 million funding authorization, with the funds to be distributed to the states based on their population of people 70 and older. …