My stay-at-home mom cared for her father for nearly two years until his increasing dementia and the demands of a young family became too much for her. Fortunately, there was a plain, clean, affordable facility staffed by kind souls nearby.
My turn at caregiving came when my dad was diagnosed with bone cancer. Our retired stepmother was Dad's primary caregiver, but my brother and I tag-teamed caregiving support; during the last six weeks, one or the other of us went every day. It was tough. At one point, my brother phoned to say he thought Dad's illness was taking him, too.
Yet we were lucky. Together, we had enough social support and wherewithal to do what Dad needed. Even so, it was darned hard.
Not everyone is so lucky. A confluence of factors including baby boomer longevity, divorce, childless couples, fewer children in families (many scattered geographically), and economics has created a crisis in the number of caregivers versus the number of those needing care.
A 2013 AARP report projects that by 2030, there will be 57 percent fewer potential caregivers — defined as people 45 to 64 — available for each person 80 and older (four, compared with seven in 2010).
AARP estimates that one in five Americans is currently taking care of someone over 50. Nearly 80 percent of those caregivers are unpaid family members or/and friends.
Caregiving is a demanding job that's often thrust upon us. In addition to coping with the evolving needs of the cared for, there are emotional and health risks to the caregiver: depression, anxiety, insomnia, increased chances of developing chronic illnesses and slower healing of wounds among them.
Educating caregivers is critical. While we know more today than ever about the health requirements and available treatments for older Americans, "much of that knowledge is not reaching those who need it most," according to the report Caregiving in America from the Schmieding Center for Senior Health and Education. Caregivers frequently turn to physicians for minor things they could likely handle on their own with training.
For example, understanding nutritional needs, which have a big impact on quality of life, can help solve some problems.
Caregivers may also be able to access tips, sources and other help through the nonprofit National Alliance for Caregiving, the Family Caregiver Alliance and the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregiving's "Caring for You, Caring for Me" program. HomePorts, a member-supported non-profit in Kent County, Md., helps people deal practically and proactively with the changes that unaddressed can compel an unwanted alteration in living arrangements.
Technology too can have a big positive impact by giving caregivers tools to make their work easier. High speed Internet — though confounding to some and expensive — offers a social outlet, access to brain exercising online games and the ability to work from home for many, notes Sally Abrahms of AARP.
But technology can't do it all. Ultimately, caregiving is about people. And there are too few available to meet the need.
One possible way to bolster the numbers of caregivers is the "Caregiver Corps," a proposal that began last year as a White House petition. It is modeled on the Peace Corps and Teach for America programs and would require a two-year commitment in a volunteer's own community. Volunteers would be educated on essential skills and offered incentives including student loan forgiveness, educational credit and monetary reimbursement.
It's increasingly likely that at some point in life everyone will have had a hand in caregiving of some kind. And while I would have likely avoided it if I could, I'm forever glad I did it.
Nancy Taylor Robson, author with registered nurse Sue Collins of "OK Now What? A Caregiver's Guide to What Matters," is a freelance writer and author of several books. Her email is email@example.com.
To respond to this commentary, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your name and contact information.