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“Each day, courageous individuals step forward to help care for family members in need, their quiet acts of selflessness and sacrifice telling a story of love and devotion. Across our country, parents and children, siblings and spouses, friends and neighbors heroically give of themselves to support those in their lives affected by illness, injury or disability. During National Family Caregivers Month, we salute the people who play difficult and exhausting roles, and we recommit to lifting up these Americans as they care for their loved ones while protecting their dignity and individuality.”
That was how President Barack Obama opened his proclamation officially declaring November as National Family Caregivers Month. This annual celebration of the nation’s family caregivers dates back two decades. The National Family Caregivers Association (now known as the Caregiver Action Network), originated the idea for a weeklong celebration of family caregivers back in 1994, and President Bill Clinton signed the first presidential proclamation for it three years later.
It became an annual tradition, with proclamations signed every year by presidents of both parties, eventually evolving into a month-long recognition.
This year, President Obama noted that there are more than 60 million family caregivers currently caring for loved ones in the United States, and that “as a Nation, we have an obligation to empower these selfless individuals.”
That 60-million figure may even be underestimating the number of family caregivers in America. A Pew Research Center study in 2013 found that 39 percent of U.S. adults are currently caring for a loved one with significant health issues, a rise from 30 percent in 2010.
Here in Massachusetts, Governor Deval Patrick offered similar thoughts in his proclamation for the Commonwealth celebrating the estimated 858,000 family caregivers in Massachusetts.
“Through their efforts, thousands of the Commonwealth’s citizens across the continuum of aging are able to remain at home longer, avoiding institutional placement; and … these efforts take a toll on family caregivers who often risk their own well-being resulting in physical, psychological, social and financial hardships that many accept without complaint and go unacknowledged by others.
“Family caregivers exemplify the finest ideals of familial love, loyalty, duty and selflessness and their service and enrichment of life in the Commonwealth is deserving of recognition and support,” concluded Patrick’s proclamation.
Family caregivers rarely get the recognition and appreciation they deserve, but they provide a vital and valuable service. How valuable? A RAND Corporation study released in October estimated the value of informal caregiving of older adults by friends and relatives in the United States comes to $522 billion a year.
Americans spend an estimated 30 billion hours providing care to elderly relatives and friends each year. With 3 of 5 caregivers also in the labor force, working-age people under 65 provide 22 million of those caregiving hours, which the RAND study estimate are worth $412 billion. RAND noted that an additional $211 billion is spent annually on formal long-term services and support for older adults in the U.S.
Those aren’t the only costs that family caregivers face. Caring for a loved one can take an emotional, psychological and even physical toll. A 2008 AARP study found 17 percent of caregivers felt their health had gotten worse as a result of their caregiving responsibilities. A 2006 Family Caregiver Alliance study found 40 to 70 percent of family caregivers have clinically significant symptoms of depression and 25 to 50 percent of those caregivers meet the diagnostic criteria for major depression.
And caregiving can have long-lasting effects that continue even after a person’s caregiving responsibilities end. The 2009 National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP study found that caring for a person with dementia can impact a caregiver’s immune system for up to three years after their caregiving experience ends, increasing their chances of developing a chronic illness of their own.
Caregivers make all kinds of sacrifices for their loved ones. Their contributions all too often are overlooked and underappreciated. But at least for one month every year, caregivers get a little bit of well-deserved attention as National Family Caregivers Month gives all of us an opportunity to recognize and celebrate all that the millions of caregivers do every day for their loved ones.