When President Obama proclaimed November National Family Caregivers Month this year, he described family caregiving as “heroic work… often done while caregivers balance other commitments to their families, jobs, and communities.” He couldn’t be more right, especially in this economy and as an increasing number of older Americans need care. That’s why policies like paid sick days and paid family leave, that help family caregivers manage their responsibilities while they provide essential care to their loved ones, are critical.
Nearly 30 percent of the adult population — 66 million Americans — served as unpaid family caregivers in the past year, and most of them held jobs in addition to caring for a loved one. Working family caregivers inevitably need short periods of time off of work to administer medication, attend doctors’ appointments or deal with medical emergencies. Yet more than 44 million workers, including many family caregivers, don’t have basic paid sick days they can use to meet family caregiving needs or recover from their own illnesses. And millions don’t have access to longer periods of leave they can use when loved ones face serious illnesses.
Challenges for family caregivers and our nation are growing steadily. As the population ages and people live longer, the need for family caregivers is increasing. It’s estimated that, by 2050, there will be 88.5 million older adults. And we all know that people are in greater need of routine medical care and treatment as they age. Right now, 91 percent of adults over age 65 are living with at least one chronic condition that requires routine care. Seventy-three percent have at least two. At this rate, without policies that support family caregivers, the country won’t be able to keep up with the amount of care the population needs.
Paid sick days allow family caregivers to earn paid time away from work to help their elderly loved ones get the care they need. Paid family leave insurance provides longer periods of time off when loved ones have serious health conditions and need care. These policies also play a critical role in protecting the health of family caregivers themselves. Family caregiving is both physically and emotionally demanding, and employed family caregivers often find it difficult to deal with their own ailments and get routine care because their time and finances are stretched thin. For those without paid sick days, getting care for themselves can be nearly impossible.
There is a clear imperative to make sure caregivers can meet their responsibilities at work and at home in order to keep older adults and their families safe, healthy and happy. No one who takes on the selfless task of caring for a loved one should be forced to choose between that loved one and the economic security of their family. So as we approach the end of National Family Caregivers Month and the start of the holiday season, let’s all remind legislators at all levels and all across the country that working families and caregivers truly need: modest, supportive policies that help caregivers manage their work obligations while caring for their loved ones.
Vicki Shabo is the director of work and family programs at the National Partnership for Women & Families.