The COVID-19 pandemic has had unprecedented effects on our society and even more so on our senior population, as they struggle to manage care. In some cases, they are without their loved ones being able to visit them, creating a further sense of isolation, heightened anxiety and depression due to fear of contracting the virus.
Statistics show 43% of seniors experienced loneliness during this period. While taking care of loved ones is priority, caregivers experienced higher levels of stress as they tried to manage their own needs while taking care of their loved ones, leading to further negative health outcomes.
Per research conducted by the National Rehabilitation Research and Training Center, family caregivers experienced more negative effects from the pandemic than those who weren't, including more emotional, physical and financial burdens. Female caregivers, younger caregivers and especially families with lower incomes experienced significant issues.
The pandemic has increased our awareness on the burden our caregivers face. We would need to further create a strong ecosystem to address this issue.
Here are four ways we can address and support our caregivers as part of a care infrastructure for better health in our nation.
Secure our caregivers financially
Most of our caregivers spend 78% of their income to take care of their loved ones, leading them to diminish their savings and retirement. There are also situations where caregivers have to leave their jobs, leading to lesser incomes, more debts, unpaid bills and reduced Social Security retirement benefits. Some solutions that have emerged include adopting policies that allow flexible work hours. Furthermore, municipalities can provide tax credits to employers offering a minimum number of weeks of paid leave to family caregivers, make tax credit eligibility criteria more accessible to middle income families and extend job protections.
Caregivers struggle with accessing services
Second, caregivers face enormous difficulty being able to access services within their communities such as transportation, tailored meals and in-home health services due to lack of financial stability, better nutrition education and understanding resource availability overall. According to the National Alliance for Caregiving, 27% of caregivers found it very difficult and 62% of the caregivers needed training and access to information to better understand how to take care of themselves and their loved ones. Systems need modernization and integration as it can be difficult to find all information that is needed in one place. Finally, mental health services would be critical for caregivers as well as for their loved ones they are supporting.
Managing and reducing caregiver burnout
Caregiver burnout is significant for professional and family caregivers. The exhaustion and burden of work results in caregivers not being able to attend to their own needs and have a state of physical, mental and emotional exhaustion. There needs to be additional support for caregivers to provide relief and mitigate the risk of burnout.
Fourth but not least, we need to leverage technology. By 2020, approximately 120 million older Americans will need care at home. According to the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), the majority of caregivers—some 45 million—will be unpaid (compared to 5 million paid caregivers), and many will care for more than one aging family member. Technologies such as telehealth and bio sensors, with their capabilities to meet members where they are and to proactively detect health concerns, could help provide education, consultation, psychosocial/cognitive behavioral therapy (including problem solving training), data collection and monitoring, clinical care delivery and social support. Better data and predictive analytics will lead to more tailored interventions. As technology is used by caregivers, it will require digital literacy as well to be as effective but could also reduce caregiver burden.
In conclusion, caregivers are an integral part of our society. They need additional support, access to mental health professionals, care infrastructure and a living wage. We need to move forward by creating solutions at the intersection of innovation, partnerships and awareness. Employers for example can create partnerships with caregiver organizations. Our caregivers need care in order to give care.
Smriti Kirubanandan is a healthcare strategist and food equity advocate with a background in robotics, public health and nutrition. Dr. Jay Bhatt is a physician and instructor at UIC School of Public Health.