Most of us know someone who has been a family caregiver or maybe we’ve even been a family caregiver. A caregiver is anyone who provides basic assistance and care for someone who is sick, disabled, living with a chronic disease or experiencing the impact of aging. Caregivers provide a variety of different tasks depending upon what the needs are. They can include basic activities of daily living, like taking someone to the doctor or helping someone with dementia. In most instances, the individuals performing these tasks don’t think of themselves as caregivers. They are just doing what is expected of them.
Family members, friends and neighbors make up the vast caregiver population in the U.S. - a group that is estimated to number about 65 million people, or 29 percent of the adult population, according to the National Family Caregivers Association (NFCA). Rosalyn Carter, wife of former President Jimmy Carter, once said, "There are only four kinds of people in the world - those who have been caregivers, those who are currently caregivers, those who will be caregivers and those who will need caregivers."
With so many people caring for loved ones, the challenges can also be great. The financial, physical, mental and emotional toll this important job can take makes respite care another important aspect of caregiving.
Family members most commonly serve as caregivers. The NFCA reports that the average caregiver is a 49-year-old married woman with a career, who spends about 20 hours per week providing unpaid care to her 69-year-old mother. About 66 percent of caregivers are women, and 37 percent are also caring for children or grandchildren who live with them. While women make up a majority of caregivers, middle-aged adults tend to also take on the role most often, with most between the ages of 35 and 64.
These people often provide care to a spouse, parent, sibling or child in a number of capacities for "free." However, the cost of caregiving totals about $375 billion per year, almost double the amount spent on other caregiving services such as home care agencies or nursing homes. Informal or family caregivers lose about $659,139 over a lifetime by way of lost social security and pension benefits, as well as wages. In addition, many caregivers may leave their careers to care for a loved one full-time, or may dip into their own savings.
While caregiving can be a fulfilling role for many family members or friends, the responsibilities can become overwhelming, especially when caregivers are shouldering the entire job themselves. Almost three-quarters of family caregivers report that they don't go to the doctor as much as they should, and between 40 and 70 percent have reported significant symptoms of depression. This is where respite care plays a large role in "informal" caregiving, allowing the caregiver to maintain their own health so they can continue to provide care to their loved one.