New Studies Show Children As Caregivers For Aging Parents

APRIL 7, 1997 VOLUME 4, NUMBER 40

Two recent studies demonstrate that children of the frail elderly spend more time and money on care of their parents than is widely supposed. Despite the popular image of “baby-boomer” children as self-involved and neglectful of their elders’ needs, the research indicates that the amount of effort invested in elder care has actually increased over the past decade.

In 1987, according to one of the studies (sponsored by the American Association of Retired Persons, the National Alliance for Caregiving and others), seven million families were involved in providing long-term care for parents or other relatives. That number has more than tripled, to 22.4 million.

Fully half of employed caregivers have missed work time to care for their elders in recent years, reflecting an increase from just over two-fifths a decade ago. Another surprise: almost half of long-distance caregivers are male, despite the stereotype of daughters providing all the care for aging parents. The average age of long-distance caregivers: 46–which places the average caregiver solidly in the baby boom generation.

Long-distance caregivers make up a distinct portion of the children providing care for elderly relatives. 70% of those out-of-town care providers are employed, and they provide assistance with everything from bill-paying to hiring and managing on-site caretakers.

The second recent study, commissioned by the National Council on Aging, shows similar results. The NCOA focused its study on caregivers who live at least an hour from their elders. While that study showed that only 15% of caregivers have taken unpaid leave from their jobs to deal with elder care responsibilities, it suggests that out-of-town caretakers provide more than just their time to support aging elders. In fact, the NCOA caretakers had spent an average of $196 per month of their own money to provide or oversee care, and spent 35 hours per month on making the arrangements and visits necessary to keep their elders safe and provided for.

The NCOA study (funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts) also revealed another important detail about long-distance elder care: the length of time such arrangements continue. According to the study, the average long-distance caretaker had been involved in helping out for just over five years.

Both studies demonstrate the reality of caregiving at a time when public policy debates focus on the spiraling costs of long-term care. According to the conventional wisdom, children (and especially baby boomers) are interested primarily in receiving their depression-era parents’ estates as quickly as possible. That is the view that invests policy determinations, from Congress’ recent attempt to make criminals out of parents who give away property before institutionalization to Medicaid’s refusal to provide any substantial home care alternative to nursing home placement.

Even as the American population ages inexorably, the public debate shifts away from reasoned solutions of the growing funding problem associated with long-term care and toward demonizing of the segment of society most likely to require assistance. The long-term care insurance industry, eager to develop a market in this growth field (a tiny fraction of long-term care costs is currently paid by insurance, with the majority of funding coming from the federal Medicaid program), has led the charge with a two-fold attack: accusing children of the frail elderly of greed while trying to frighten the elderly themselves with visions of bankrupt government programs and allegedly substandard care. Unfortunately for those who make the first claim, the AARP and NCOA studies clearly demonstrate that the elderly receive tremendous assistance from their children, even across long distances.

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