Recently, I received an early morning phone call from my parents in Europe. While I talk to my parents once a week when they are on vacation, I never receive calls first thing in the morning. I thought to myself that something must be wrong. Making things worse, trying to communicate with my parents was difficult since the phone connection on their cruise was terrible. However, I was able to understand them saying, “Grandpa is in the hospital.” Fortunately, my parents established a better connection and explained my grandfather’s medical situation and that the matter was not an emergency. While not an emergency, at ninety-four, anytime he is in the hospital it’s not small potatoes.
The next few days I was in constant communication with my grandfather, his doctors and my parents. I feel like I got a crash course in medicine, learning about different medications and procedures. Trying to talk with the professionals about the intricacies of his medical situation, and then communicating that information to my parents, often through email, proved to be a challenging, yet doable, task.
After a few days, with his condition still not improving, I decided the best course of action was for me to travel to New York and visit him in the hospital. While packing for my trip, my wife turned around to me and said, “You know, you should write a blog about children and grandchildren who are caregivers for their elderly parents or grandparents. Look at how much time you have spent on the phone over the past few days getting updates on your grandfather’s condition. Can you imagine being a caregiver for a family member day in and day out?”
Consequently, it got me thinking. Who are the millions of people that dedicate their lives to helping their family members in need? Often, caregivers are responsible for helping their family members with mobility issues, cooking meals, shopping, laundry, bathing, companionship and transportation.
Firstly, there about 44 million people who provide unpaid family care to a disabled child, spouse, sibling or parent. Secondly, according to the American Association of Caregiving Youth, there are 1.4 million children between 8 and 18 who are caregivers, and the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, reports that 10 percent of older Americans in their 60s and 12 percent of seniors in their 70s whose parents are living, serve as caregivers. The number of children and seniors who are caregivers was not a statistic I was expecting to discover. It’s hard to imagine someone who is 8 or 79 serving as a caregiver.
While people often are happy to be caregivers for loved ones, the devotion comes with a price. For instance, there is a financial burden placed upon caregivers who are performing unpaid labor. Sadly, the financial costs run deeper than simply not receiving a paycheck because often caregivers are forced to quit their paying job or reduce their hours. This is problematic because it causes people to have reduced pay, which can have lasting consequences on people’s pensions, Social Security earnings and 401k accounts. Furthermore, when adults serve as caregivers, it can lead to problems for their own health. Research discovered that caregivers, despite going to doctor’s visits with family members, are less likely to take preventive health care measures such regularly monitoring their blood pressure and having mammograms and colonoscopies. For children, the negative effects of being a caregiver can manifest themselves when they conflict with homework, socialization with peers and a student’s ability to concentrate in class.
So now that we know a problem exists for caregivers, how can we provide a fix? As I mentioned in a previous blog, “Paid Family Leave: It Impacts Seniors Too!,” Senator Kirstin Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) introduced legislation in Congress that would provide people paid leave in the event they have to look after a sick parent. While this would only help people who are temporary caregivers, at least it’s a start. Other ideas include a caregiver tax credit or allowing caregivers to earn a credit towards future Social Security earnings.
Upon reflection, my week of monitoring my grandfather’s medical condition was easy, compared to the countless tasks caregivers are required to perform every day. Fortunately, my grandfather got better and returned home! Unfortunately, all too often, countless children and seniors must assume a caregiver role that requires them to make sacrifices for a loved one. Hopefully, through public awareness and legislative fixes, we can make policy changes that ensure the financial, physical and emotional wellbeing of caregivers of all ages!
Evan Carmen, Esq. is the Assistant Director for Aging Policy at the B’nai B’rith International Center for Senior Services. He holds a B.A. from American University in political science and a J.D. from New York Law School. Prior to joining B’nai B’rith International he worked in the Office of Presidential Correspondence for the Obama White House, practiced as an attorney at Covington and Burling, LLP, worked as an aide for New York City Council Member Tony Avella and interned for Congressman Gary Ackerman’s office. Click here to read more from Evan Carmen.
Caregiver Support Bills: Protecting Social Security Benefits for Those who Leave Work to care for parents, children, Relatives
Over the last few years there have been several bills that would expand or improve social security benefits. We believe this is important because Social Security is the most secure retirement income vehicle we have, and for the majority of retirees it is their primary or only source. Some of these bills have been broadly designed to close the Social Security funding gap while addressing inadequacies in the benefit structure while others are focused on specific issues, like the lack of credit given to family caregivers.
These are people who take months or years out of the workforce to provide unpaid care to their parents, children or other relatives. For a variety of reasons, those workers have traditionally been women (though that trend is beginning to show signs of change). By staying out of the work force for a few years to take care of kids early in their careers or doing it (again) later in their careers, women’s social security benefits are disadvantaged in several ways. First, leaving the work force for any period of time can impact the trajectory of your career. In fact, this pattern of leaving the workforce and being the one primarily responsible for childcare is often cited as one non-discriminatory reason that women earn less than men. By working for lower wages, women earn less in Social Security benefits.
So, people (primarily women) are likely to see reduced benefits—and this is a population that is already likely to live longer and have lower benefits anyway! That’s one reason to find a way to give people some Social Security credit for the years they are out of the workforce. Another reason is this: as a country we want—we need—to encourage family caregiving. As many of you know, as well as I, we do not have much of a long-term care system in this country. Families with a relative who needs help with daily activities have limited options. Most Americans do not have long term disability insurance, and it can be very difficult to afford it. Medicare doesn’t cover most long-term care expenses in a home or a facility.
For many families, the most cost effective—or only—option is for someone to take off from work to care for their parent. According to AARP’s public policy institute, family caregivers provide nearly half of a trillion dollars in care each year. Though they are generally not paid, they are working, and they are providing a service both to their families and the country as a whole.
Therefore, we should find a way to prevent this critically important caregiving role from diminishing the retirement security of caregivers. Americans overwhelmingly support the idea of a Social Security caregiver credit (click here to read more about it). The caregiver credit proposals in Congress (notably those from Senator Chris Murphy and Representative Nita Lowey) include giving credit for months out of the work force, based on a formula as if the person had earned a wage (generally a percent of the average wage). There are also bills emerging this year that would do the same, but only for parental caregiving for children, which is good, but not good enough. This would certainly not replace earnings credit an average or high wage worker would have achieved back in the work force, but it can at least prevent those $0 years from slashing benefits in a “high 35” formula.
B’nai B’rith International is very pleased to see these bills as part of the conversation in Congress, even though 2016 might not be the most productive legislative year, given all attention being focused on elections. As a nation we depend on family caregivers, and the least we can do is help make sure that the men and women who perform this service are protected in retirement.
Photos via Flickr (1) (2)
Rachel Goldberg, Ph.D has been the B’nai B’rith International director of health and aging policy since 2003 and the deputy director of the B’nai B’rith International Senior Services since 2007. Before joining B'nai B'rith International, she taught politics and government at the University of Puget Sound and Georgetown University. To view some of her additional content, Click Here.
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