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Family members should plan now for future caregiving needs

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The graying of America has many consequences. Baby boomers -- also known as the sandwich generation -- face the challenge of planning for their own retirements and funding their children's education.

But, perhaps the most emotional issue that awaits them is the care and companionship they may be required to provide an elderly loved one. And, like many other aspects in their lives, they are likely unprepared to provide that assistance.

"Though today's medicine and healthier lifestyles have done a good job at extending our life spans, advancing age still slows down the majority of older people, making it harder for them to conduct daily activities, run errands, manage medications or just go out and about," said gerontologist, Linda Rhodes. "Chances are that older relatives will need some type of assistance and, more often, companionship, yet this is often a topic that is not broached by families until a crisis arises, forcing relatives to make quick, ill-informed decisions during an emotional time."

New research suggests that need for caregiving is already a reality. The National Alliance for Caregiving estimates there are 44.4 million caregivers -- nearly one in five Americans -- who provide unpaid care to another adult. Based on demographic trends, that means as many as 400,000 people in San Diego County are providing such a service for a loved one. And, almost six in 10 of these caregivers either work or have worked while providing care.

"Family caregiving puts a tremendous strain on employees, physically and emotionally," said James Weil, director of Successful Aging for LifeCare, one of the nation's largest employee benefits organizations. "Their caregiving responsibilities can all too easily overwhelm them and affect their performance at work."

A study by LifeCare discovered the impacts of elder care:

* 67 percent of employees providing care reported taking time off during the workday for caregiving

* 64 percent used sick days or vacation time

* 22 percent took a leave of absence

* 20 percent reduced their career from full-time to part-time

* 16 percent quit their jobs entirely

The growing demands on caregivers -- on and off the job -- are leading to the creation of new assistance programs. Some employers are creating Geriatric Care Management programs to help workers who find themselves sandwiched between family and work. The program arranges for a qualified professional geriatric care manager to actually visit with the elderly relative and assess their needs firsthand. This leads to the creation of a customized care plan.

"The bottom line is that GCM programs benefit everyone involved," Weil said. "Elders receive better care, caregivers make more informed decisions and worry less about their loved ones, and employers get more focused and productive workers."

The decision to be a caregiver is often based on economics. The cost of providing professional care continues to rise rapidly. A MetLife survey found that the daily cost of nursing home care in San Diego County averages $217 a day or $79,205 a year. That is well above the national average of $70,080.

Considering that the average stay in a nursing home is 2.4 years, the cost skyrockets to more than $200,000. That would exhaust most personal savings accounts.

"The confusion about payment for long-term care costs continues to be an issue," said Mathew Greenwald, who conducted a study for the American Association of Retired Persons. "Those over 50 are often mistaken about whether Medicare or insurance, other than long-term care insurance, will pay for home care, assisted living or nursing home care. Clearly, more public education is needed on this issue."

But, the growing number of independent services that have been formed to assist caregivers believe that the first step in providing help to a family member is a clear and open line of communication.

"Acknowledging your role, being open to solutions and understanding that seeking help is in the best interest of everyone, are important steps toward re-establishing a quality of life for all," said Suzanne Mintz, co-founder and president of the National Family Caregivers Association. "It is clear that caregivers need help, not just now, but for generations to come. Family caregivers will benefit from the knowledge that asking for help is a good thing to do not only for themselves, but especially for their loved ones."

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