Although most Americans know that the U.S. population is aging, they are far less informed about the reality of providing elders with personal care, health care, and social support. Families—particularly women—have always been critical in providing elder care, but the entry of so many women into the paid labor force has made elder care increasingly difficult.
Ann Bookman and Delia Kimbrel show how changes in both work and family life are complicating families’ efforts to care for elderly relatives. Because almost 60 percent of elder caregivers today are employed, many forms of caregiving must now be “outsourced” to nonfamily members. And because elders are widely diverse by race and socioeconomic status, their families attach differing cultural meanings to care and have widely different resources with which to accomplish their care goals. Although the poorest elders have access to some subsidized services, and the wealthiest can pay for services, many middle-class families cannot afford services that allow elders to age in their homes and avoid even more costly institutional care.
Six key groups—health care providers, nongovernmental community-based service providers, employers, government, families, and elders themselves—are engaged in elder care, but their efforts are often fragmented and uncoordinated. All six groups must be able to work in concert and to receive the resources they need. Both employer and government policies must be improved. Although large businesses have taken up the elder care challenge, most small and mid-sized firms still do not offer flexible work arrangements. Social Security and Medicare have provided critical support to families caring for elders, yet both face significant financial shortfalls. The Older American Act and the National Family Caregiver Support Program have broadened access to elder services, but need updating to address the needs of today’s employed caregivers and elders who want to “age in place.” And just over half of the nation’s workforce is eligible for the unpaid leave benefits provided by the Family and Medical Leave Act.
The authors close by reflecting on the need for a coordinated, cross-sector movement to create an “aging-friendly” society in the United States—a society that values well-being across the life span and supports citizens from diverse cultures and income levels as they age.