Who Cares for the Caregiver?

Caregiver holding the hands of a person in need.

The financial and emotional challenges of caring for a spouse wear on Sammamish resident Michael O’Connell. As the sole caregiver for his wife, who has Alzheimer’s, he wonders if their savings will last through her illness. They did all the right things you would expect of a solidly middle-class family, planning carefully for retirement, but he is facing a situation where their savings may not last. And, with a family history of Parkinson’s disease, he worries about how she will fair if something happens to him.  “It keeps me up night and day,” says Michael.

Taking care of an aging or ill family member can be enormously rewarding. But, as any current or former caregiver can attest, caregiving can be physically, emotionally, and financially draining. The unpaid care provided by our family caregivers is critical to our nation’s health and long-term care systems.

In a 2021 AARP study about the financial toll of caregiving, about half of caregivers say they have experienced financial setbacks. This may mean they have had to curtail their spending, dip into personal savings, or cut back on retirement contributions. The recent COVID-19 pandemic magnified sacrifices for caregivers, with 42% of respondents spending more time and money on caregiving.

The AARP study highlights the need for effective public policy to support families financially. One such piece of legislation introduced in the U.S. Congress, the Credit for Caring Act, would provide a tax credit of up to $5,000 to eligible working caregivers.

Caregivers report increased rates of physical ailments, chronic conditions, diminished immune response, and an increased risk of heart disease and depression. The effects on physical and mental health are also well documented. Often complex and prolonged caregiving leads to a decline in health for the caregiver. Moreover, family caregivers are less likely to engage in preventive health behaviors.

There are several resources available to help caregivers find some balance. AARP Washington has a list of resources at www.aarp.org/wacaregiverresources. We also have a dedicated, toll-free family caregiving line. While our agents cannot provide specific advice to callers, they can suggest resources on several topics, including caring for the caregiver, financial issues, home care, legal issues, long-distance caregiving, and veteran caregiving. Agents can take calls Monday-Friday, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. ET at 1-877-333-5885. The support line is also available in Spanish at 1-888-971-2013. You don’t have to be an AARP member to call the support line.

Another good place to start is Washington’s Community Living Connections network. It helps individuals, their caregivers, legal representatives, and families navigate and connect with information and access to long-term and home- or community-based services and supports. You can call them toll-free at 855-567-0252 or visit waclc.org.

As his wife’s sole caregiver, Michael spends most of his day doing everything she used to do – paying bills, food shopping, cooking, and housework, in addition to caring for her needs. “These are supposed to be our golden years, yet Social Security is failing to keep up with the cost of living. We need to do more as a nation to make sure those who need care, like my wife, have quality care and that those who care for them don’t become poor and work themselves to death in the process.”

We could not agree more.

See More from AARP here.

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