The Growing Pressures Facing Unpaid Family Caregivers

Editor’s Note: This column is sponsored by the AARP Thought Leadership and International team. Thought Leadership and International seeks to position AARP as a global thought leader by identifying emerging trends around the world, cultivating and elevating new ideas and sparking new solutions that empower people around the world to make the most of a longer and healthier life.

Being a family caregiver—providing unpaid care to a parent, spouse, partner, friend or other adult loved one—is hard work. It also can be rewarding work. The rewards of caring for a loved one who needs our help can be substantial. Performing day-to-day tasks that range from administering medications and assisting with personal care to offering emotional support provide an opportunity to pay something back, to offer a return on the loving investment someone once made in us. It’s a chance to help preserve the quality of life for an individual who now has a tough time completing daily tasks. It’s the joy of knowing that we are easing someone’s way, lifting burdens and making sure that person is not alone.

However, being a family caregiver can also come at a cost—literally. In 2017, AARP tallied what society would typically pay for the labor unpaid family caregivers so willingly donate. That number? An estimated $470 billion. To put this in context, the total estimated economic value of unpaid family caregivers at that time surpassed the combined annual sales ($450 billion) of the four largest U.S. tech companies (Apple, Hewlett Packard, IBM and Microsoft).

‘Of the 48 million Americans who are family caregivers, nearly 40 percent, or 19 million, currently are men.’

What hadn’t been included in those 2017 calculations was the significant amount of money family caregivers often spent out of their own pockets as part of their contribution. A new AARP study estimates that family caregivers typically spend $7,242 (or 26 percent of their income, on average) per year on out-of-pocket costs. To cover the extra expense, many family caregivers have to pare back their own spending. They often save less for retirement, and many have dipped into personal or retirement savings. While the majority of family caregivers are women, more and more men are also experiencing the financial burden of caregiving.

All Hands on Deck: Male Family Caregivers

Men—a group traditionally not recognized for performing caregiving tasks—are increasingly breaking stereotypes and being called upon to perform caregiving tasks for loved ones. Of the 48 million Americans who are family caregivers, nearly 40 percent, or 19 million, currently are men. Many erroneously believe the caregiving activities that they perform are limited to managing finances and providing transportation, but AARP found that men also perform complicated medical and nursing tasks such as tube feeding, giving injections and handling medical equipment, to name a few.

For many men, being tasked with caring for a loved one comes sooner than they had ever imagined. Such is the case with Andres, whose wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. As another AARP caregiving video suggests, male caregivers, and in this case African American male caregivers, have started to open up and discuss their feelings—as well as sharing information on how to be a better caregiver—in support groups.

Men are less likely than women to be recognized as family caregivers because, due to societal perceptions, they’re hesitant to talk about the challenges of caregiving. So, it might come as a surprise to hear that men tend to be caregivers for longer periods of time than other unpaid family caregivers.

The Economic Impact of Keeping Caregivers Working

Nevertheless, caregiving is a life event that cuts across gender, racial, political and economic lines. In addition to incurring out-of-pocket expenses in their role as family caregivers, many men and women are forced to leave their full-time jobs, or lose their jobs, when their caregiving responsibilities become too demanding. Ensuring that both male and female family caregivers have the support they need to continue in the labor force isn’t just a kind gesture on the part of their employers. It benefits both the business and the economy.

‘Keeping family caregivers ages 50 and older in the workforce could generate an additional $1.7 trillion in GDP in 2030.’

A new AARP report found that preventing these caregivers from dropping out of the labor force gives the biggest potential to boost the economy. Keeping family caregivers ages 50 and older in the workforce could generate an additional $1.7 trillion in GDP in 2030, a figure equivalent to New York’s total economy and larger than Florida’s. In addition, improving assistance for ages 50 and older working caregivers could support 10.7 million jobs—a 5.2 percent increase in total jobs—for the entire U.S. working population in 2030, as well as boosting wages and salaries by $1.1 trillion!

Given the economic impact of keeping adults ages 50 and older in the labor market, both the government and employers need to step up their support so that caregivers can continue to work—particularly because family caregiving can be costly. Key supports from governments and employers would help caregivers of all ages remain engaged in the workforce rather than having to consider early retirement. Research shows that more than 75 percent of family caregivers ages 50 and older who retired early because of family caregiving responsibilities would have remained in the workforce longer if they had access to financial supports such as paid family/sick leave, FMLA eligibility, respite services, long-term care insurance and care subsidies or nonfinancial supports such as employee assistance programs, flexible hours/shifts, compressed schedules, telecommuting and phased retirement.

An Appeal to the Public and Private Sectors

There is no one-size-fits-all approach or policy to creating a caregiving-friendly workplace. Nevertheless, as “The Economic Impact of Supporting Family Caregivers” reveals, there’s a compelling business case for increasing family caregiver supports and inclusion in the workplace.

The urgency around providing these supports is well-founded: Demographic shifts in the United States over the next three decades will increasingly mean that the ages 50 and older population will take on more family caregiving responsibilities. But this cannot and should not be allowed to hinder their ability to remain in and contribute to the workplace. Both the private sector and the U.S. government must recognize the importance of keeping those who serve as family caregivers in the workforce by offering the supports that make juggling caregiving and career possible.

Jean C. Accius, PhD, is senior vice president of Global Thought Leadership at AARP, in Washington, DC.