Aging Issues

How Does an Aging Population Impact Caregivers?

Americans are living longer than ever. Medical advances have resulted in unprecedented population growth over the last century. Although increased longevity is touted as a clear measure of success in modern health care, it can be accompanied by a range of challenging issues, such as disability and more demand for long-term care. For aging individuals, these issues can create difficulties, but how do they impact caregivers?

Aging Trends and Long-Term Care

There’s been a lot of attention given to the fact that the massive baby boomer generation is aging and accumulating health issues as they do. However, as a recent AARP report points out, they’re also transitioning from being the family caregivers their elders count on, to becoming those who need care themselves.

For older adults, various levels of physical disability are increasingly accompanied by some degree of cognitive impairment that requires support. In fact, for those 65 or older, the lifetime probability of becoming disabled in at least two activities of daily living or being cognitively impaired is a whopping 68 percent. Some experts predict an increase from 2012’s estimated 1.6 million people 85 and older with severe or moderate memory impairment to as many as 6.2 million by 2050.

These trends indicate that there will be a significant increase in demand for long-term care in the future. In 2010, 12 million Americans were in need of long-term care, and that figure is expected to more than double by 2050—with 70 percent of those older than 65 needing long-term care at some point in their lives. Since more than 90 percent of aging Americans say they want to remain in their homes as long as possible, more families are trying to manage this care themselves.

The Impact on Caregivers

According to a 2013 Pew Research study, four in 10 adults in the U.S. are caring for a sick or elderly family member—and nearly half of those surveyed said they expect to care for one at some point in their lives. As Susannah Fox, the study’s lead author noted, “More health care is happening at home. As more people are able to be saved by medical advances, their lives are being extended, but they’re also being sent home medically fragile. It’s caregivers who are the first line of defense.”

In 2009, family caregivers provided $450 billion in unpaid care—often juggling jobs and children while they did it. As a result, this sandwich generation may feel the family caregiving burden most heavily. In fact, 47 percent of middle-aged adults in 2013 had a parent age 65 or older and were either raising a young child or financially supporting a grown child. Fifteen percent of them were supporting both an elderly parent and a child at the same time.

Advances in medicine are certainly a good thing and many people are benefiting from the increased longevity they can provide. As our aging population grows, there will be a continued need to better support the caregivers who attend to those living longer lives.

Bio: Julie Potyraj is the community manager for the MHA@GW and MPH@GW blogs, both offered by the Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University. Her passion for public health developed while she was a community health and education volunteer in rural Zambia. She is currently an MPH@GW student.