Caregiving cliff approaches in the next three decades

A recent AARP study found there are about 34.2 million Americans who act as caregivers to an adult age 50 or older. Most caregivers – 85 percent of them – are caring for a relative, typically a parent.

According to another study from AARP, the ratio of caregivers to those who needed care and were at least 80 years old was 7-to-1 in 2010. This is the highest number when comparing the six decades between 1990 and 2050. After 2010, the number begins to fall rapidly as the baby boomer generation begins to age. By 2030, the ratio is estimated to be 4-to-1, then 3-to-1 in 2050.

In an interview with NBC News, Richard Johnson, director of the Urban Institute's program on retirement policy, said the decline is the result of several factors. First, family size is decreasing, which means fewer children are viable options for caregivers. Also, more people are reaching old age divorced or unmarried, taking away the option for a husband or wife to provide care.

"As previous AARP research has shown, we're facing a caregiving cliff," Dr. Susan Reinhard, senior vice President and director at the AARP Public Policy Institute & chief strategist at the Center to Champion Nursing in America, said in the report. "…That means we need to provide support for existing caregivers who are underserved by the current long-term services and support system to avoid putting them at higher risk as they age."

Hours of care
An AARP study estimated that unpaid care given to family members was valued at $470 billion in 2013. More than half of caregivers work full time. One-quarter of them told AARP they have reduced work hours or took a less-demanding job as a result of their caregiving.

The average caregiver is 49 years old. However, the need to care for a relative doesn't just affect adults. According to Tech Insider, 25.9 percent of teens who drop out of high school do so because they had to take care of a family member. AARP also found that one-quarter of caregivers are younger – between 18 and 35 years old.

It is clear that caregiving takes a toll on people. While it is rewarding for many people, 40 percent told AARP the burden of the work is high and 18 percent said it was moderate.

"Caregiving is the most rewarding thing you can do in life, but it's the hardest, too," Maggie Ornstein, who has been caring for her mother for the past 20 years, told NBC News.

Financial support
Taking care of a relative isn't the only way Americans support family members. According to a study by Ameritrade, one-fifth of people financially support another family member and one-third of them also care for that family member.

Americans who act as caregivers often feel the burden of their work emotionally, physically and financially. As the number of people requiring care increases and the number of available caregivers falls, it's important for people to know what resources they can use to ease their burden or find support for themselves.

Caring for yourself
According the Washington Post, the struggles people face when balancing their role as a caregiver, their work and other aspects of their life was recently acknowledged through a piece of legislation introduced to Congress last year. It called for 12 paid weeks of family and medical time off, plus partial wage replacement for working caregivers.

The legislation wasn't passed, but the issue is still in the minds of many. However, John Schall, chief executive of the Caregiver Action Network, told the newspaper that caregivers need to have more support.

Helpguide .org advises caregivers to seek help through community resources, such as senior centers and community organizations the care recipient might be associated with, like an Elks lodge. Caregivers should also be sure to make time for themselves. It's important to stay healthy, maintain relationships and take breaks from giving care.