An American Crisis: Who Will Care for the Baby Boomers?

Every day since her husband broke his hip, Beatrice Egger has been afraid. The 91-year-old retired teacher worries when William, 90, a retired principal, is in the shower. She worries when she is helping him get dressed and he unsteadily towers over her. And she worries when he moves from sitting to standing or from room to room. When he falls, which inevitably happens, she can call upon aides at their Issaquah, Wash., retirement home to help get him back up. But they can’t help her all the time. So she stays scared.

If they could afford it, Beatrice and William would hire a home care aide to help during the day. That would give Beatrice a safety net, a pair of younger stronger arms to steady William. They know they’re lucky that their pensions afforded them life in a retirement community, food and some level of care. But they live in fear that William’s next fall will prove fatal and, without his pension, Beatrice might not be able to afford her community; after a lifetime of middle-class jobs, she might be forced into Medicaid.

Beatrice is one of 43 million unpaid caregivers in America, a number poised to spike as the Baby Boomers, who comprise most of the family caregivers now, join the ranks of the oldest old. “Family caregivers make up a silent support army — without them, health and social systems within our aging societies would be absolutely overwhelmed,” says Scott Williams, who oversees Embracing Carers, an international caregiving initiative for pharmaceutical company EMD Serono. The group conducted a survey of unpaid caregivers in 2017, which found that nearly half of family caregivers suffer from depression, and 45% did not have time to book or attend their own medical appointments as a result of their caregiving activities — thus putting caregivers at risk of falling ill and needing caregiving themselves. A 2002 Stanford University study found that 40% of Alzheimer’s and dementia caregivers actually die from stress-related disorders before the one for whom they are caring.

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