Women and Caregiving

POSTED: November 17, 2011

By Cindy Hounsell and Howard Gleckman

Judy Dow was a successful schoolteacher in Burlington, Vermont. Along with her husband Steve, she was raising two kids and living in a comfortable home. But Steve’s mom was suffering from dementia and Judy’s parents were becoming increasingly frail. Judy took on the role of primary caregiver for all three—she laughingly calls herself the “tour director.” But as their care needs became increasingly complex, Judy found herself taking too much time out of work and eventually had to quit her job. Now, she is a part-time educational consultant where she earns less money and receives no benefits.

AARP estimates that more than 60 million Americans care for an elderly parent or other adult with disabilities at some time during the course of the year—and nearly two-thirds of these caregivers are women. Most, like Judy, are trying to hold down a job and many are also children. The National Alliance for Caregiving (NAC) paints a picture of a typical caregiver: She is a 49-year-old woman who spends nearly 20 hours a week caring for her aging mother. And she typically provides that assistance for nearly five years.

As a result, while these daughters provide this help out of love, they pay a tremendous physical, emotional, and financial price. The direct cost is easy to measure. Typically, a caregiver will spend about $5,000 annually out of pocket to care for a loved one, and as much as $8,000 if she lives in a distant city. But that is just the beginning, in a recent NAC survey two-thirds of caregivers reported they came in late to work or left early to help out a parent or other relative. One in five reported taking a leave of absence. Others, like Judy, quit their jobs because they can no longer balance work and caregiving.

When these women reduce their working hours, or even leave employment, they lose more than current income. It also means they have less money to put away for retirement and lower Social Security earnings. As a result, they are putting their own long-term financial security at risk. The Metlife Mature Market Institute estimates that women over 50 who leave the workforce to care for a family member will lose as much as $324,000 in income and benefits over their lifetimes.

But family caregivers sacrifice more than money. They are at higher risk of physical illness or injury, and face much higher rates of depression. These issues are especially prevalent when they are providing care for long periods of time or where the care recipient suffers from dementia.

Unfortunately, the burden on family caregivers will only grow with the rapidly aging Baby Boomer generation. The need to care for parents and other relatives will force more women like Judy out of work, making it harder for them to save for their own retirement and compounding the costs of this quiet crisis for future generations.

Cindy Hounsell is president of the Women's Institute for a Secure Retirement. Howard Gleckman is a resident fellow at The Urban Institute and author of “Caring for Our Parents”.

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