For those of us who are caregivers or work with caregivers, the focus given to caregiving issues at the recent White House Conference on Aging was exhilarating and a reason to celebrate. Unlike past White House Conferences that dealt with a wide variety of aging issues, this conference selected only four subject areas: caregiving, healthy aging, retirement security and elder justice. This conference also moved the aging conversation to a discussion that included boomers and seniors. No wonder caregiving had to be included.
The biggest issues that came out of the panel, adroitly led by actor David Hyde Pierce, were the increasing need for paid and family caregivers, low pay and marginalization of direct care workers who are asked to support the dignity of our family members every day at a rate of only $13,000 per year, and the need to give caregivers more options and support.
My colleague on the NCOA board, Ai-Jen Poo, talked about the need for a whole new system, to revalue care, and to support good quality caregiving jobs that would give us the sustainable workforce we need to live well. The panel also emphasized the importance of “dementia-friendly communities” that are more aware of the needs of persons with dementia and their caregivers.
The biggest missing issue was the lack of acknowledgment that the United States has no system for long-term services and support at a time when boomers are turning 65 at a rate of 10,000 a day. Most people don’t understand that Medicare doesn’t pay for care in assisted living or a nursing home. They don’t realize that the only options are private pay or to spend down to poverty to qualify for Medicaid.
There is nothing for families in the middle who want to support their loved one in later life, but don’t have enough resources to pay for all the care that is needed. The lack of retirement savings for the boomer generation combined with a great amount of debt means the upcoming generation will be the least prepared to face the challenges in later life that require care, and that their families will continue to shoulder that burden without adequate support.
The White House Conference on Aging was a moment to pause, to look around and evaluate the current landscape, and to imagine the future we want to see. When we open the door to the years ahead, I hope we see an integration of health and social services that allow us to get the healthcare we need in a community setting where we want to live. I hope that as a society, we decide to value our loved ones, our families and ourselves enough that we create a path to follow when disease and disability enter our lives with financial, emotional, and physical supports along the way.
The White House is full of the symbolism of, “We the people.” If all caregivers were to lift their voices and speak for the future they want for all the generations in their families, from the oldest to the youngest, we would feel the ground shifting beneath our feet creating that new path. It’s time.
Carol Zernial is Vice President of Community Relations for WellMed Medical Management and Executive Director of the non-profit WellMed Charitable Foundation. A noted gerontologist, Ms. Zernial also serves as Chair of the National Council on Aging Board of Directors.