National Partnership for Women & Families

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Portia Wu, Vice President

From the desk of ... Portia Wu

Time to Support Older Americans and their Caregivers, Not Undermine Them

May 31, 2011 | Work and Family

Respect your elders. Many of us have been given that advice by our parents, grandparents, teachers and mentors for as long as we can remember. So why don't our public policies better address the needs of our country's seniors and their families, and why do some lawmakers seem poised to dismantle the policies that older Americans rely on?

May was Older Americans Month - a time to honor the seniors in our lives for the important roles they play in our communities and families. Sadly, many older Americans today are not living the comfortable post-retirement lives they hoped for and expected. Tough economic times and fast-rising prices have cost them their savings and made it infinitely harder for many to make ends meet. Some are depending on loved ones for the care they need to age in the homes and communities they love, but their caregivers can't help as much as they would like because they, themselves, are struggling to meet the demands of their jobs and their families with no paid time away from work.

Everyone suffers because workers in our country lack the basic workplace protections that allow them to hold jobs and be family caregivers. Common sense policies like paid sick days and paid family leave can make it possible for workers to provide elder care to ill or frail loved ones - but too many jobs fail to offer paid leave, and the country lacks a national standard.

For the caregivers of older adults, this can pose enormous challenges. There are at least 43.5 million caregivers of adults over 50 in this country, and most of them have paying jobs in addition to their caregiving responsibilities. Working caregivers' responsibilities can become unmanageable when times are tough and employers fail to provide flexible work schedules and paid sick time or paid family leave. Too many caregivers are being forced to choose between their loved ones' health and their own paycheck when an elderly parent or relative suffers an injury or serious illness.

The absence of sensible family friendly policies also penalizes seniors who want or need to hold jobs to help support themselves later in life. Older adults are more likely to suffer from chronic conditions requiring regular care, including diabetes, asthma and hypertension. Nine in 10 adults over age 65 are living with at least one chronic condition and 77 percent have at least two. In order to stay healthy, productive and in the workforce, older adults need to be able to manage their health through routine doctor appointments, treatments and preventive care. Without workplace policies that enable them to do so, they have to choose between health care and financial security.

That is an impossible choice - one nobody should have to make. That's why it is so disturbing that, instead of ensuring that workplaces adopt family friendly policies, some lawmakers are recklessly putting programs that are critical to seniors - like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security - on the chopping block. Dismantling these programs is dangerous and would cause great harm to seniors in this country.

National Partnership President Debra L. Ness recently said that the future for older Americans isn't looking pretty. She couldn't be more right, of course, but we can improve the picture by abandoning plans for irresponsible cuts and adopting family friendly policies that help workers hold jobs and care for family members who need care and support.

As Older Americans Month comes to an end, we should all think about the ways we can support the seniors in our lives. Now is the time to adopt policies that make it possible for people of any age to hold jobs and care for family members; and now is the time to protect - not slash - the programs seniors rely on.


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