New Approach to Support Caregivers Needed

Published in Woonsocket Call on September 18, 2016

Currently 18 million people across the nation provide assistance with activities of daily living, transportation, finances, wound care and giving injections to their aging parents, spouses, family and friends. AARP Rhode Island estimates that 148,000 Rhode Islanders are caregivers. The future is bleak for those requiring caregiving assistance in the near future. According to a recently leased report by The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM), the need for family caregivers will drastically increase but demographic shifts reduce the potential pool of caregivers to tap.

Being a Caregiver in America

The 340 page NASEM report (taking 20 months to produce) calls for the retooling of the nation’s health and long-term care delivery system through team based care (using a person and family care model approach) and policy changes to better support family caregivers in the delivery of care to older Americans.

The recommendations detailed in Families Caring for an Aging America, released on September 13, 2016, challenges policy makers “to transform the health care experience for older adults and their family caregivers,” says Nancy Morrow-Howell, PhD, president of the Washington, D.C.-based The Gerontological (GSA) Society of America, the nation’s largest interdisciplinary organization devoted to the field of aging. “The approach requires a multidimensional, interdisciplinary effort that spans diverse settings of care. GSA strongly supports this effort to create a person- and family-centered model for team-based care that recognizes and rewards the role of the family caregiver,” she notes.

Adds Richard Schulz, who chaired NASEM’s Committee on Family Caregiving for Older Adults (consisting of 19 caregiving experts) that oversaw this study and who serves as Distinguished Service Professor of Psychiatry, University of Pittsburgh, “Ignoring family caregivers leaves them unprepared for the tasks they are expected to perform, carrying significant economic and personal burdens.”

Schultz adds, “Caregivers are potentially at increased risk for adverse effects in virtually every aspect of their lives – from their health and quality of life to their relationships and economic security. If the needs of the caregivers are not addressed, we as a society are compromising the well-being of elders. Supporting family caregivers should be an integral part of the nation’s collective responsibility for caring for its older adult population.”

According to a release, NASEM’s highly anticipated report noted that by 2030, 72.8 million U.S. residents – more than 1 in 5 – will age 65 or older. According to the National Survey of Caregivers, in 2011, 17.7 million people – or approximately 7.7 percent of the total U.S. population aged 20 and older – were caregivers of an older adult because of health problems or functional impairments. This estimate does not include caregivers of nursing home residents.

Furthermore, being a caregiver is not a short-term obligation, says the report, noting that the median number of years of family care for older adults with high needs is around five years. The proportion of older adults who are most likely to need intensive support from caregivers – those in their 80s and beyond – is projected to climb from 27 percent in 2012 to 37 percent by 2050.

A Shrinking Pool of Caregivers

The NASEM’s Family Caregiving Committee says that little policy action has been taken to prepare the nation’s health care and social service delivery systems for this demographic shift. While the need for caregiving is rapidly increasing, the number of the potential family caregivers is shrinking. Current demographic trends – including lower fertility, higher rates of childlessness, and increases in divorced and never-married statuses – will decrease the pool of potential caregivers in the near future. Unlike past years, aging baby boomers and seniors will have fewer family members to rely on for their care because they will more likely be unmarried or divorced and living alone, and may be even geographically separated from their children.

The in-depth report found that family caregivers typically provide health and medical care at home, navigate a very complicated and fragmented health care and long-term services and support systems, and serve as surrogate decision makers. Although these individuals play a key role caring for older adults with disabilities and complex health needs, they are oftentimes marginalized or ignored by health care providers. Caregivers may be excluded from treatment decisions and care planning by providers who assume that they will provide a wide range of tasks called for in the older adult’s care plan.

Confirming other research studies, the committee found that caregivers have higher rates of depressive symptoms, anxiety, stress, social isolation, and emotional difficulties. Evidence also suggests that they experience lower physical well-being, elevated levels of stress hormones, higher rates of chronic disease, and impaired preventive health behaviors.

Those taking care of very impaired older adults are at the greatest risk of economic harm, because of the many hours of care and supervision they provide. However, caregiving can provide valuable lessons, helping the caregiver deal with difficult problems and bringing them closer to the recipient of care.

Next Steps

NASEM’s report calls for the next presidential administration to take immediate action to confront the health, economic, and social issues facing family caregivers. Also, the committee urges the secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, in collaboration with other federal agencies, and private-sector organizations, to develop and implement a National Family Caregiver Strategy that recognizes the essential role family caregivers play in the well-being of older adults.

The report recommends that the nation’s health and long-term care systems must support caregiver’s health, values, and social and economic well-being, as well as address the needs of the of a growing caregiver population that is both culturally and ethnically diverse.

Federal programs (such as Medicare, Medicaid and Veterans Affairs) must also develop, test and implement effective mechanisms to ensure that family caregivers are routinely identified, assessed, and supported. Payment reforms can motivate providers to engage caregivers in the delivery of health care, too.

AARP Rhode Island State Director Kathleen Connell agrees with the NASEM’s report’s assessment that the importance of a caregiver’s role in an aging society cannot be overstated. At her organization she clearly sees an increased demand for caregivers and knows all-to-well the impact of a shrinking pool of potential caregivers on those in need.

“It is essential that we take action now to do all we can to remove obstacles and additional financial strain and mitigate physical and mental stress where possible for caregivers,” says Connell. AARP has compiled a wealth of research and information on aging issues that can be accessed on http://www.AARP.org.

Final Thoughts…

On Jan. 1, 2016, a new Rhode Island law took effect that would help Rhode Islanders avoid costly and time-consuming red tape when exercising health care, financial and other legal responsibilities for their out-of-state, elderly loved ones.

Why reinvent the wheel? Rhode Island law makers, the state’s Division on Elderly Affairs and the Lt. Governor’s Long-Term Care Coordinating Council can do more to support the state’s growing caregiver population. With the next session of the Rhode Island General Assembly starting in January 2017, state officials and lawmakers can reach out to other states to learn what state-of-the art caregiver programs can be implemented here.

For a copy of the report go to: nationalacademies.org/caregiving

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