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Who guards the guardians: Series shows caregivers need our assistance

Diane Dimond’s series on court-appointed guardians is horrifying for any of us who are concerned about protecting our loved ones’ rights and independence as they get older.

Her series has served as a reminder that we must strengthen our long-term care system and support the 40 million people in our country who are family caregivers for seniors and people with disabilities who need assistance to live as independently as possible in their homes and communities.

Family caregivers work hard every day balancing caregiving with their personal and professional lives. But they need more than our acknowledgment; they need our support.

Every year family caregivers provide $470 billion worth of unpaid care, surpassing our nation’s total Medicaid funding for both health care and long-term care services.

Families want to provide that care, but they also do it because it is necessary.

Many people who need care cannot afford to pay for services that would help them remain independent, but they have just enough money to be ineligible for Medicaid and the support services it would provide. So their families fill in the gaps where they can, keeping their family member out of a high-cost nursing home.

I share that experience as a caregiver to my mom. I know the value of what family caregivers do, how they manage their daily responsibilities with the medical, emotional, physical and financial needs of their loved one. I also know there aren’t enough of us; we have a critical, growing shortage of family and paid caregivers in our country.

In 2010, there were seven potential caregivers for every person older than 80. By 2030 — when one in five Americans will be 65 or older – that ratio is projected to drop by almost half, to four to one. In New Mexico, the fastest growing segment of our population is people older than 65.

We must make a national investment in long-term care. And we need to grow a workforce that will help meet the needs of our population.

I have introduced the National Care Corps Act, which is one tool to shore up the system and our caregivers.

The National Care Corps Act would place trained volunteers in communities to provide non-medical care that supports family caregivers and those receiving care.

Creating a national service program is one strategy for enabling people to live as independently as possible while also supporting the millions who provide care on their own. This legislation will also provide volunteers with benefits, including educational awards, so they can further their careers and spur growth in a health care workforce that is in dire need of expansion. Through Care Corps, we will promote volunteerism and supplement the hard work of paid caregivers.

I can imagine the relief I would feel if someone visited my mom every day, drove her to medical appointments, read to her and listened to her stories. That kind of relationship – independent from the people she pays to perform tasks and the daughter who cares for her – could be incredibly meaningful for all of us.

I can envision volunteers gaining insight into the lives of seniors and people whose lives have been shaped by disabilities. Care Corps would give people an opportunity to build intergenerational relationships, creating space for a level of understanding and connection that is rare today.

This volunteer-caregiving concept is gaining support across the country; a broad range of organizations focused on the needs of caregivers, seniors and individuals with disabilities have endorsed Care Corps. More than 50 congressional members are serving on a new bicameral, bipartisan caucus that I co-founded to raise awareness about the need to support caregivers, create an environment conducive to reaching bipartisan solutions and build a sense of urgency to act.

I am eager to work with my colleagues in the next Congress so we can support our caregivers who give of themselves to protect and care for their loved ones.

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