In centuries past, the situation people faced as they grew elderly was often dire. During hard times, seniors were consigned to the poorhouse, and those who remained at home feared they would become a burden on their families. Today the situation is completely different, thanks to the efforts of millions of ordinary Americans who have taken it upon themselves to serve as caregivers. Because of their compassion, most seniors today enjoy a quality of life that would have been unimaginable 100 years ago.
The sheer magnitude of this effort is impressive. According to the AARP Public Policy Institute, between 30 and 38 million adult caregivers provide care to adults in need of assistance with an activity of daily living like bathing or grooming. The average family caregiver devotes 21 hours a week to caregiving, or more than 1,080 hours a year.
The economic value of this care is also striking. AARP estimates that the services caregivers provide are equivalent to $354 billion, larger than the gross national product of Denmark, Argentina, or Ireland. This sum is as much as the total expenditures for the Medicare program or more than $1,000 for every person in the United States.
In fact, caregivers' efforts have substantially diminished the burden on the American taxpayer, reducing the demands on the Medicare system. For instance, caregiving by adult children has been shown to significantly decrease the likelihood that beneficiaries will have Medicare expenditures for skilled nursing-home care and home health care.
These efforts involve many sacrifices. Caregivers make direct out-of-pocket expenditures of $2,400 a year to support a family member or friend with a disability. In addition, the time and effort involved in caregiving can have an impact on their wages, job security, and advancement, as well as on their retirement.
Nonetheless, caregivers choose this course because they find caregiving to be a source of real satisfaction. Caregivers report that the daily experience of love and service has given them an opportunity to forge new bonds with their loved one and has made their lives more meaningful. They feel empowered by the knowledge that they have made a difference.