In Praise of AARP's Elaine Ryan

Unless you work or frequent the legislative halls of state government, it's quite probable you have never heard of Elaine Ryan, the AARP's vice president of state advocacy and strategy integration. But if you are a family member overseeing the care of a loved one released from a hospital in a growing number of states, you owe Ryan a huge debt of gratitude.

Ryan is responsible for helping spearhead the AARP's Caregiver Advise, Record, Enable (CARE) Act, which requires hospitals to identify a family caregiver when releasing a patient from the hospital and advising them with the education and instruction of the medical tasks they will need to perform for the patient at home. Eighteen states already have approved a CARE Act, including California, New York, and New Jersey.

In an ideal world, hospitals would easily be able to identify designated family caregivers and ensure they know and understand all the care that will be required of them when their loved ones are discharged. Nearly half of the estimated 40 million family caregivers regularly perform medical or nursing tasks including managing multiple medications, providing wound care, managing special diets, giving injections, and operating monitors or other specialized equipment. The economic value of unpaid family caregiving is estimated at nearly $500 billion a year.

Unfortunately, identifying family caregivers can be an arduous task for hospitals because in some families no one wants the responsibility. This attitude has proven costly because patients often are readmitted for the same conditions because they didn't receive proper follow up care. Hospitals have increasingly become concerned about readmissions because insurance providers, as well as Medicare and Medicaid, increasingly won't cover the costs.

Ryan has a first-hand appreciation for the challenges of being a family caregiver, having overseen the care of her parents. She talks openly about being overwhelmed with the medical tasks she was expected to perform when her mother was released from the hospital after undergoing brain surgery. She joined the AARP in 2007, four months after her mother died.

Gaining approval for the CARE Act in all 50 states is but one of several impressive initiatives the AARP is pursuing on behalf of family caregivers. The organization also is actively promoting caregiver employee leave, so that family caregivers don't lose pay or their jobs when they need to take time off work to take care of a loved one; respite care, to ensure family caregivers get much needed breaks; and ensuring that caregivers have access to available resources in their community, such as home care and adult day care. AARP's website highlighting the work of family caregivers is an inspiring read.

By any measure, the AARP is on the forefront of successful caregiver legislative initiatives. Elaine Ryan is among the organization's unsung heroes making it happen. Ryan's passion for her work is readily apparent in her blog, which I highly recommend.