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    Thursday, May 23, 2024

    We are entering a new world of caregiving

    Is it fair to ask teenagers to give up sports and parties to care for parents or other older relatives? That's an important question these days, because so many now do.

    The Wall Street Journal reported on a 15-year-old high school kid, Leo Remis, who is helping his disabled mother. Leo flexes her muscles to prevent blood clots. When her hands are shaky, he helps her eat and brushes her teeth.

    "It is my normal," the high school freshman said.

    Paid home health care has become wildly expensive for middle- and working-class families. Meanwhile, as the size of families shrink, so do the available pairs of hands to help out. Thus, the job of caring for elders is falling on fewer and apparently younger relatives. Some kids in middle school are now tasked with turning over bed-ridden relatives.

    About 5.4 million children under 18 are now providing care for parents, grandparents or siblings with chronic conditions, according to the National Alliance for Caregiving.

    Again, to the opening question. Is this fair? Some may answer it has always been thus. Or taking care of others is character-building. After all, that's in the unwritten contract of being part of a family, right?

    But much is different now. The growing numbers of divorced or never-married parents may not have mates to care for them. Hospitals are letting patients out earlier, meaning they must get more concentrated care at home. People are living longer with cancer and other diseases, conditions that can be nonetheless disabling.

    Rising demand for home care is already dragging in caregivers long out of high school but still juggling their own complicated set of demands. Millennials, today's 28- to 43-year-olds, now account for almost a quarter of the nation's unpaid caregivers, according to the National Alliance for Caregiving. They are putting in an average of 21 hours a week. The patient may be a parent or a spouse's parent or a grandparent. Many are also raising children, working a job and trying to find a partner of their own.

    Members of Generation X, mostly in their 40s and 50s, are near their peak level of earning power and also may have children of their own. More of them are trying to do all that plus care for their declining Baby Boomer parents. That means providing not only more hands-on physical labor and managing piles of pills but also arranging their elders' affairs — assuring they have a place to live, can get to doctor's appointments and find food in the fridge.

    Many Gen X men are doing this work, but the burden still falls mainly on women. Someone who leaves work to care for a relative loses not only wages but Social Security benefits. And the stress level can be enormous, especially in cases involving dementia.

    Even families with the resources to hire outside caregivers don't get off scot-free. They have to ensure that the home health aides show up and won't steal from the often-confused patient. Reputable services don't come cheaply.

    Whatever the age of the home caregivers, there are no obvious big-picture solutions to ease their burden. Government programs to provide health care are expensive everywhere. In this country, Obamacare has helped out a bit, but Donald Trump came very close to killing even its modest benefits in his first term. Anyone who believes he wouldn't try again is highly optimistic.

    Americans of modest wealth wanting a dignified old-person future must save, cut off luxury spending, pay off debts. Now. They can't laugh off the idea that someday they may need intense care.

    We are entering a new world of caregiving, and Americans hardly know where to start.

    Froma Harrop covers the waterfront of politics, economics and culture with an unconventional approach. She can be reached at fharrop@gmail.com.

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