The Disappearing Family Caregiver

Family caregivers are the bedrock of our system of long-term supports and services. At least eight of every ten people receiving care get it at home (not in a nursing home or other residential facility), and nearly all of their assistance is provided by relatives or friends. But a forthcoming study by AARP finds that huge demographic changes threaten to undermine that bedrock.

Today, Baby Boomers–now in their 50s and 60s– are caring for their parents. Because there are so many Boomers, there is a relatively big pool of potential caregivers. In technical terms, the ratio of caregivers to those needing assistance is high. In human terms, there are lots of 50-somethings who are taking time off work and lots of 60-somethings spending their early retirement caring for their 80-something parents.

But that pool of family caregivers will soon dry up. In a couple of decades, when all those Boomers who are now providing care will need assistance themselves, there will be many fewer  adult children to help them out.

The research, which was presented to the congressional long-term care commission last week by AARP Senior Strategic Policy Advisor Lynn Feinberg, compared the number of people 80 and older (those most likely to need care) with those 45-64 (those most likely to provide help). Here is a picture of what AARP researchers found:

In 2010, there were more than 7 potential caregivers for every person 80 and older. By 2030, there will be only 4, and by 2050 there will be barely 2.5.

Today, those relatively young Boomers are providing the family support that makes it possible for their parents to live at home. In 20 years, it will be much harder for them to find the same help.

Of course, these broad ratios tell only part of the story. Other factors, such as high divorce rates, the percentage of women who work, and the locations of parents and their children will all affect the ability of that pool of adult children to care for their parents. And, of course, we can’t know about the next generation’s willingness to help its parents.

Still, the AARP study is a huge red flag. It tells us that, while it may not seem so, the potential for family caregiving is at its peak today. We are facing a long, slow slide to a time where there will be far fewer children to care for their parents. And that means we are going to have to plan for a time when that role, and perhaps the settings where we get care, will inevitably shift.

It may mean more people will receive care in different kinds of residential communities rather than in single-family homes. It may require neighbors to take on a bigger role. It will certainly demand that we think about how to pay for care that may be less available from our families. As Lynn told the commission, all we really know is that “the future looks unlike the past.”


Howard Gleckman


Forbes  7/26/2013


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