Deborah Adler, mother of two teenagers, daughter of a highly successful businessman, with a successful career of her own in geriatrics, never expected to be caring for her ailing, 80-year-old father.
But when her mother died and her father was diagnosed with dementia a few years ago and, as his condition worsened, began needing more and more attention and help, it fell to Adler and her sister to help him.
"This was never supposed to happen," said Adler, 48, who lives in Clarksville and works as director of community relations for Copper Ridge, a facility in Sykesville that treats the memory impaired. "My father was supposed to predecease my mother. She was going to get a house with my sister — they were going to be the Golden Girls. I never expected to be in this situation.
"But life does not happen according to any plan."
Adler has joined two fast-growing segments of the population — caregivers who support a family member or other loved one who needs help and the "sandwich generation," the usually middle-aged men and women who are squeezed between caring for both a parent and their own children.
The growth of those groups is a national phenomenon, the subject of a growing number of books and websites with names like caregiver.org, familycaregiving101.org and caregiveraction.org.
It has been fueled, on one end, by a growing number of young adults who rely on their parents for support and, on the other, by an aging population that is living longer than ever and also is increasingly disinclined to move to a nursing home, instead choosing to remain where they are.
And, when they remain where they are — "aging in place," the experts call it — the seniors usually do so with the help of family members, typically a younger, healthier spouse or a grown child.
A 2009 survey by the Family Caregiver Alliance found that 3 in 10 adult Americans care for someone who is ill, disabled or aged.
A 2012 study by the Pew Research Center found that 47 percent of adults in their 40s and 50s have a parent 65 or older and either a young child or a grown child they support. About 1 in 7 of those middle-aged Americans financially support both a child and an aging parent.
Maryland has an estimated 1.1 million caregivers, according to 2012 figures from the Family Caregiver Alliance. Howard County has an estimated 56,000, which means nearly 1 in 5 county residents is caring at least part-time for a loved one, typically a family member, who is aged, ailing or disabled.
Many of those families rely on the county's Caregivers Support program, part of the Office on Aging, which offers an array of referral services. Those services include support groups (some run by the county, some by other organizations), respite and in-home care, and a limited number of grants that can be used to help pay for a variety of services, from respite care to dental care.
The number of caregivers who received grants increased by more than 50 percent in the past year, soaring from 119 to 186.
"And there would be in more if the funding were greater," said Valerie Liss the Office on Aging's Caregiver Educator. The need to help caregivers, she said, "is definitely a growing concern here."
Liss, a clinical social worker, also does home visits to help caregivers figure out how to better care for their loved one, and to listen to their concerns.
"I think they really appreciate having a sort of point person that they can talk to," said Liss. "I've had caregivers that I've had contact with for years."
"The emotional support that Valerie provides I think is really priceless," said Peggy Hoffman, division manager of the Office on Aging's Aging and Disability Resource Center.
Liss said the calls to her office "range anywhere from somebody just looking for a support group to really complicated cases. I had one recently where a grandmother was in a hotel with her two young grandchildren, and her money is running out and she doesn't know where to go."
Liss got the grandmother a grant to cover a few more days in the motel, and then found her and the grandchildren space in the county's Grassroots homeless shelter.