Whether Willingly Or Otherwise, We’ve Become A Nation Of Caregivers

It’s an irony of our youth-oriented culture: While TV and movies show us carefree 20somethings, more real-live Americans find themselves in the role of caregiver for old folks. This fact is largely ignored by advertisers, who can scarcely bring themselves to believe that 50somethings exist, let alone the infirm mothers of 50somethings.

A study by AARP and the National Alliance for Caregiving finds 16 percent of American adults have taken on the role of caregiver for someone age 50 or older. Another 5 percent care for an adult under age 50. Most caregivers look after a relative, although 17 percent care for someone outside the family. The stereotype of caregiving as a female avocation isn’t wholly accurate, as men constitute 39 percent of the people who fulfill that function. But women provide more hours of care, on average, and are more likely to give “a higher level of care.” Thus, there’s “a kernel of truth” to the popular wisdom. “The typical caregiver is a 46-year-old woman who has at least some college experience and provides more than 20 hours of care each week to her mother,” says the report. Men are more likely than women to see their caregiving as optional: 42 percent of the women “feel they did not have a choice in taking on this role,” vs. 34 percent of the men.

What sorts of assistance do caregivers usually give? Atop the list is transportation, cited by 82 percent. Among other common sorts of assistance are grocery shopping (75 percent), housework (69 percent), managing finances (64 percent), making meals (59 percent) and giving medicine (41 percent). Smaller but significant numbers of caregivers take on such jobs as dressing (29 percent), bathing (26 percent), toileting (23 percent) and feeding (18 percent) the recipients of their care. While 48 percent of caregivers spend eight hours or less per week in that role, it consumes 9-20 hours for 23 percent of them, 21-39 hours for 8 percent and 40 hours or more for 17 percent.

Little wonder that the role of caregiver takes a toll on those who perform it. The study asked caregivers to rate how emotionally stressful the role is for them, on a scale of 1 (not stressful) to 5 (very stressful). One-third of them graded it a 5 (18 percent) or a 4 (16 percent). As you might guess, people who believe they had no choice but to become caregivers were especially likely to be stressed out by the task: 51 percent of these no-choice caregivers rated the emotional stress at a 4 or a 5, vs. 24 percent of those who felt they did have a choice in the matter. What’s the main way caregivers cope with the stress endemic to their responsibility? Praying, cited by 73 percent of them. One hopes the prayers are answered.