Family caregivers often take on the responsibilities of tending to a loved one while still working and maintaining their own households — the added workload could lead to emotional turmoil, financial instability and overall undue stress.
Almost one in five Americans provided unpaid care to another adult in 2020, up from 18% in 2015 (a total of 53 million people), according to a report from the National Alliance for Caregiving. More unpaid caregivers are also caring for multiple people, from 18% in 2015 to 24% in 2020, or they’re having a harder time coordinating their care, from 19% to 26% in that same timeframe.
The coronavirus pandemic did not make it easier. More than a third of people already acting as caregivers said their responsibilities increased during the global disaster, according to an Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll. These added responsibilities came alongside job loss, and the financial and emotional turmoil that came with it. At the height of the pandemic, loved ones were scrambling to find safe care for their parents and relatives, especially as the virus spread quickly throughout some nursing homes and assisted living facilities, and some weighed their options of keeping them in care facilities or bringing them home for the foreseeable future.
See: Nursing homes are now facing a COVID resurgence, a staffing shortage will only make it worse
Here are three things current — and future caregivers — should do now to protect themselves:
Talk openly and clearly about responsibilities
If the caregiving hasn’t yet happened, families should discuss financial and physical support with their aging loved ones before the need arises.
“If adult kids may need to provide financial support, they need to know sooner than later so they can put it into their own financial plan,” said Patti Black, a certified financial planner at Bridgeworth Wealth Management who also acted as a caregiver for her parents before they died. She also recommends people encourage their loved ones to create estate planning documents, such as healthcare proxies and powers of attorney. “It’s so important to have these conversations well in advance of any crisis.”
Some may even pre-plan and pre-pay for their funeral, if they can afford to do so. These conversations can be difficult, but they save everyone in the family from additional stress and expenses during an already emotional time.
Now would also be a good time to pursue options on paying or insuring for long-term care.
Read: A simple checklist to get your wishes met later in life
Look for possible benefits
Many older Americans live on a fixed income, which means extra healthcare expenses related to caregiving can fall on their relatives.
Family caregivers should be knowledgeable about benefits for the loved ones they’re caring for, but also their own. For example, the National Council on Aging has a page about resources for seniors, and provides a map of local partners and programs, including senior centers and nearby departments of aging. There are myriad services available to seniors, depending on their health, income and assets. Benefits.gov and Benefitscheckup.org are two sites that provide a list of social services available to older Americans, according to Aging.com. Individuals can conduct a search of benefits they’re eligible for based on their criteria.
There are also benefits available to caregivers. The federal government provides resources to people acting as a caregiver for a parent, spouse or child with special needs. The Family and Medical Leave Act allows eligible employees to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave every year if they’re acting as a caregiver. Non-spouses and legal guardians may even be eligible to get paid for their work under Medicaid, though the rules vary by state, according to AARP.
The Department of Veterans Affairs also has a program for family caregivers.
“If their loved one is eligible for benefits, spend time looking for those benefits, so you can take care of your own financial health,” said Nadine Marie Burns, a certified financial planner and president of A New Path Financial.
Also see: ‘I’m taking care of everybody, and now I want somebody to take care of me’: The high price of America’s care-worker crisis
Don’t be quick to leave your job
Some Americans are forced to leave the workforce to take on the role of caregiver, but that could lead to unfortunate financial consequences for their current and future finances.
Both men and women are caregivers to loved ones in the U.S., but women tend to take the brunt of the responsibilities.
“So many of our female clients fit this role, as well as myself and another adviser in our office with widowed mothers in their 80s,” Burns said. “I would say that women should really think carefully about quitting their own job to take care of a loved one.”
Of course, that can be easier said than done, but think about the potential outcome of leaving the workforce: Aside from a cut in current income, workers who leave their jobs are no longer paying into Social Security, which will result in lower benefits come their own retirements. Congress is currently reviewing a proposal to improve the Social Security program, including offering caregiver credits to those in these positions.
Caregiving can at times feel like a thankless job, but it’s one many people do to make sure their loved ones are in good hands. Still, it often leads to burnout and financial stress if not properly managed. Unpaid caregivers should look out for their own self care while attending to their loved ones.
Family caregivers can’t always expect help, but they need to ask for it, said Cheryl Woodson, a geriatric medicine physician and author of books on caregiving. Talk to the relatives’ doctors and health care facilities about nursing options, and ask other family members to step in. “If you know what it is you need, you don’t need to feel guilty,” she said.