Last evening, I had the opportunity to speak to WISER (Women’s Institute for a Secure Retirement), a Washington, D.C.- based group dedicated to improving the financial security of women. My topic: caregiving, and the effects it has on Baby Boomer women. 

I told the group about a couple of women I met when I wrote my book, Caring for Our Parents. They were both loving daughters, wives, and mothers. They would not have done anything differently. Yet they paid a high price for their commitment to their parents. 

Cheryl Fears lives in Springdale, AR, in the beautiful foothills of the Ozark Mountains, Her parents lived just a few miles away but Katy suffered from dementia and Charles, who was losing his eyesight to macular degeneration, could no longer care for her. So they sold their house, used the money to build an addition to Cheryl’s home, and moved in with their daughter, her husband, and their four boys. 

Cheryl had been running her own antique business. But caring for Katy and Charles became overwhelming, even with the help of a part-time aide. So she sold the business and became a nearly full-time caregiver.  One day, Cheryl told me, “You pretty much have to give up your life if you are doing this.” 

Cheryl is one of 40-50 million family caregivers of people 50 and older, and they are the bedrock of the support system for both the frail elderly and the disabled. While we spend about $200 billion a year on paid services, the economic value of family caregiving was close to twice that in 2006, according to AARP. 

About 60 percent of family caregivers are women—mostly wives or adult daughters. A typical caregiver is about 50 yrs old, often providing care for about 20 hours a week, usually without paid assistance. Her care can be anything from giving mom a bath to taking her to her doctor’s appointment.   

Like Cheryl, caregivers pay a tremendous financial price. For example, a caregiver pays about $5,000 a year out of pocket to help out a parent. Long-distance caregivers spend an average of $8,000. 

Two-thirds say they reduce hours at work, take leaves, or just come in late and go home  early. Some, such as Cheryl, quit work entirely. For some good research on caregivers, take a look at ther National Alliance for Caregiving’s caregiver surveys.

Not only does that reduce their current standard of living, it also jeopardizes their own retirement. It means they have less to put away in savings and fewer Social Security benefits. Over their lifetime, caregivers give up hundreds of thousands of dollars in potential income. 

But the price is not just financial. It is also emotional. 

Judy and Steve Dow live near Burlington, VT. They were caring for her parents, his mom, trying to raise two kids and holding down two full-time jobs. Steve was a contractor. Judy was a schoolteacher. 

Judy was the primary caregiver for all three frail parents, especially for Steve’s mom, who had rapidly progressing dementia. It is not easy to make it to class in the morning just as you learn your mother-in-law’s home health aide is not going to make it that day. Judy, who called herself “the tour director,” was overwhelmed.  

One day she just broke down. In tears, she told Steve, “I just can’t do this anymore” and reluctantly, they moved Steve’s mom into a care facility. 

That story is typical. About half of family caregivers report depression, and it turns out that high levels of caregiver stress often predict that the person getting care will move into a nursing facility. 

These 40-50 million caregivers are real people. And they need real help. But the system they rely on for support is failing them. Even as Congress talks about the importance of caregiver support, it does little. Indeed, these days, most of the talk on Capitol Hill focuses on how to cut elder care programs. Something is very wrong with this picture.