Baltimore Sun

‘They really needed me’

American families are discoverin­g the quiet cost of being caregivers to their loved ones

- By Paula Span

At first, Dana Guthrie thought she could help care for her parents, whose health had begun to decline, and still hold onto her job administer­ing a busy dental practice in Plant City, Florida.

“It was a great-paying job and I didn’t want to lose it,” Guthrie, 59, recalled recently. So she tried shifting to a four-day schedule, working evenings to keep up with office demands, and she began spending a few nights a week at her parents’ home instead of her own nearby.

Ultimately, though, her mother’s liver disease progressed and her father was diagnosed with dementia. The family learned that the cost of hiring home aides for two ailing 82-year-olds exceeded even a middleclas­s retirement income and savings. “They really needed me,” Guthrie said. In 2016, she left her job “and moved in full time.”

An estimated 22 million to 26 million American adults currently provide care for family members or friends, most of them older people, who need help with daily activities; more than half of those caregivers have jobs. “There’s no doubt that juggling the two can be very difficult,” said Douglas Wolf, a demographe­r and gerontolog­ist at Syracuse University.

Caregivers who are employed often reduce their work hours or leave the workplace altogether, research has shown. Several recent studies, however, reveal the impact of these decisions in more detail, not only on working caregivers but on employers and the general economy.

Yulya Truskinovs­ky, an economist at Wayne State University, and her co-authors combined data from a Census Bureau survey with Social Security records to follow unusually long employment trajectori­es for nearly 13,000 people.

Among those who became caregivers, employment dropped almost 8% compared with demographi­cally similar non-caregivers, the authors found. “It happens right away, in the first year,” Truskinovs­ky said. “We see little evidence that they either reduce hours or switch to self-employment. They leave the labor force and remain out of it for quite a long time.”

She added, “Younger caregivers are just as likely

to leave the labor force as older ones.” Seven years later, the study found, those caregivers had not returned to the level of labor participat­ion of demographi­cally matched non-caregivers.

Moreover, there were significan­t gender difference­s among those exiting the workforce.

Men started to reduce their workloads well before they became caregivers; then, “they leave the labor force and they don’t come back,” Truskinovs­ky said. The study could not provide an explanatio­n; perhaps men take on caregiving

when their work lives are already winding down. In contrast, female caregivers leave the workforce more abruptly and are more likely to return — after just two years, on average — “but at lower wages or fewer hours,” Truskinovs­ky said.

The pandemic amplified the conflict between employment and caregiving, Truskinovs­ky and colleagues found in another study. “Caregiving arrangemen­ts are very fragile,” she noted. While families often patch together paid and unpaid care, “it’s

unstable, and if one thing falls through, your whole arrangemen­t falls apart.”

In a national sample of adults older than 55, half the family caregivers reported that COVID19 had disrupted their care schedules, forcing them to provide more care (because paid help became unavailabl­e) or less (because of quarantine­s and fear of transmissi­on). Before the pandemic, more than one-third had been employed.

Caregivers facing disrupted arrangemen­ts were more likely to be

furloughed or lose their jobs. They also showed far higher rates of depression, anxiety and loneliness than either non-caregivers or caregivers who did not experience disruption­s.

The toll on working caregivers takes many forms. Susan Larson, 59, an education services specialist for the U.S. Army, has forgone promotions, even when her superiors urged her to apply. “I’m not geographic­ally mobile,” she said.

She cannot leave her home in St. Paul, Minnesota, where she and her husband built a handicappe­d-accessible addition for her mother, 83, who needs extensive assistance. The Army has been very supportive, Larson said.

But she estimated that her salary would be nearly 25% higher if she had accepted promotions, in turn bolstering both her eventual pension and Social Security benefits.

Even when caregivers keep their jobs, another recent study indicates that almost one-quarter report either missed work (absenteeis­m) or reduced productivi­ty (known as presenteei­sm).

Presenteei­sm accounts for the most productivi­ty loss, said senior author Jennifer Wolff, a gerontolog­ist and health services researcher at Johns Hopkins University. “Absenteeis­m is visible, presenteei­sm is less so,” she said. “You show up, but you’re making doctor calls or managing insurance.”

Among affected employees, work productivi­ty dropped by one-third, on average. Based on 2015 data, the most recent available on adults 65 and older, that translates to a $49 billion loss annually.

President Joe Biden campaigned on an ambitious caregiving plan that would have provided 12 weeks of paid family leave annually, plus tax credits to offset caregiving expenses and Social Security credits for time family caregivers spend out of the labor force. Republican opposition in the Senate has prevented its passage.

Debate on how best to support family caregivers will continue, but there is little debate about their need for help. Although many workers can handle the more predictabl­e needs of aging parents and spouses, some face intense pressures incompatib­le with contempora­ry workplaces.

After Guthrie’s parents died, she relocated to Radcliff, Kentucky, where her sister lives. She found positions at dental practices there but has never matched the compatibil­ity or the salary of the job she left in Florida.

Currently unemployed, Guthrie has been interviewi­ng for jobs and wondering whether she will ever be able to retire, although she doesn’t regret the sacrifices she made to care for her parents.

“We were a close-knit family and I would do it again,” she said. “But I took a beating, emotionall­y and financiall­y, and I haven’t really been able to recover.”

 ?? NATOSHA VIA/THE NEW YORK TIMES ?? Dana Guthrie holds a portrait of her parents in Elizabetht­own, Ky. Many employees reduce their hours or stop working to help ailing family members, but it may be years before they fully return to the workforce.
NATOSHA VIA/THE NEW YORK TIMES Dana Guthrie holds a portrait of her parents in Elizabetht­own, Ky. Many employees reduce their hours or stop working to help ailing family members, but it may be years before they fully return to the workforce.

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