The report Valuing the Invaluable: 2011 Update – The Growing Contributions and Costs of Family Caregiving finds that in 2009, more than 42 million Americans provided uncompensated care to an adult with limitations. The estimated economic value of those unpaid contributions?: $450 billion in 2009, up from $375 billion in 2007.
With families and workplaces evolving, many people cannot afford to stay home to provide unpaid care for an elderly parent – and hiring a caregiver is often cost prohibitive. Take the story of Take Cymando Henley, 36, whose mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis when he was starting college (from NPR):
Every day, Henley must help his mom in and out of bed and onto the toilet. He even rolls her over in the middle of the night if she becomes uncomfortable. Care like this from a professional can cost tens of thousands of dollars a year. But Henley does it for free, and it’s on top of his full-time job… “Cymando’s care for me was about 40 hours a week,” [his mother] says.
Many adult children would prefer to provide some level of care for their elderly parents, but middle class wages have remained nearly stagnant for decades, and households often need more than one breadwinner to stay afloat. Added to that, workplace policies and benefits are largely stuck in 1950s assumptions about family situations – where the father went to work and the mother stayed home to take care of the children.
Today, stagnant wages and the squeeze on the middle class have made single-earner families the exception – not the rule. That makes it impossible for many workers who are also caregivers or parents to fulfill their work and family responsibilities.
The report outlines several policy changes that could be adopted at a small fraction of the value of unpaid caregivers’ contributions:
- Workplaces should adopt more ‘family-friendly’ practices, such as allowing telecommunting and flextime,
- Policymakers should adopt/improve state Family Leave Insurance and the Federal Family and Medical Leave Act,
- Social Security benefits for family caregivers should be protected and expanded, and
- Minimum standards to ensure employers provide paid sick days for workers to care for themselves or a loved one.
These types of advances in workplace policies would allow workers to strike a better balance between their commitments at home and work – keeping families healthier, happier and more productive.