Why We Must Support Caregivers

Imagine your day goes something like this:

You get up, get dressed, cook breakfast, make bag lunches for the kids, drop the kids off at school, rush to work, prepare for a big meeting, call to check in on your mom during lunch, go to your meeting, schedule your mom's next doctor's appointment, race to the pharmacy after work, drop off mom's meds on your way home, cook dinner, help the kids with their homework, check in on mom again, and - finally - go to bed.

But your mind is still racing when your head hits the pillow. You remember a big work project is due tomorrow - and wish you had devoted more time to it. You remember your son has soccer at 4, your daughter needs 20 cupcakes (you pray that Safeway opens at 6 a.m.) - and - oh - your mom will need a ride to that doctor's appointment. Also, you need to call the insurance company about mom's big hospital bill, and isn't it time a mechanic listened to that funny noise your car is making?

When you are employed and also supporting a loved one, every day can be a race against the clock. Every day is a balancing act between the work you do to help your relative and the work you do to earn a living.

With their unpaid services worth $450 billion each year, family caregivers are the backbone of our country's long-term care system. Their help - which can include anything from personal care to overseeing finances to monitoring medical equipment - is often the only thing that keeps a loved one out of a nursing home.

But instead of supporting these essential efforts, society often leaves caregivers adrift. Caregivers who work outside the home face particular hurdles. They frequently come to work late or leave early. They use vacation time not for rest or fun but to transport their loved one to appointments. They may end up quitting or retiring earlier than planned.

The stress can be severe, as can the financial sacrifice. Such workers often lose more than $300,000 in lost wages, pension benefits and Social Security, according to a study by MetLife.

That isn't fair. Even though they are often silent with their struggles, we can do a lot to help employee caregivers.

To start, let's have a national conversation about the issues that caregivers face every day. This conversation should include ways they get can support and more easily connect with useful resources. We also should remind employers that they have much to gain by supporting their employee-caregivers.

The lost productivity of such workers costs business billions a year, research shows. Companies would gain real benefits by offering flexible work relationships and other resources that help workers handle all their responsibilities.

In an effort to promote this needed conversation, AARP has partnered with the Ad Council on a series of Public Service Advertisements to honor the work and recognize the challenges of caregivers. We want to make it much easier for caregivers to find tools and resources, and a good place to start is our Caregiving Resource Center [aarp.org/caregiving].

This is important for all of us: If you are not a caregiver today, the odds are high that either you will become one - or depend on one - in your lifetime.

Caregivers are an invisible army that deserves a great deal more support for the critical role it plays in helping people hold on to their cherished goal of independence.

Let's make sure these dedicated souls get the help they need.