Anyone working in long-term care or with relatives who need it can tell you the toll family caregiving can take. A new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention quantifies it and describes caregiving “a public health issue of increasing importance.”
Much has been written before about family caregivers and how they support loved ones as well as the healthcare system, but “Characteristics and Health Status of Informal Unpaid Caregivers,” published Friday in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly, provides the first state-level estimates of self-rated caregiver health, with data on 44 states (Delaware, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Vermont and Washington are not included) as well as Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, according to the authors. The report is based on a landline and cell phone survey of adults 18 and older conducted between 2015 and 2017.
First, the basics. In the research, about 20% of surveyed adults reported that they had provided care to a family member or friend in the preceding 30 days, and among those who were not currently caregivers, almost 17% reported that they expected to become caregivers within the next two years.
Tennessee was tops for family caregivers, with more than 28% of respondents there identifying as informal, unpaid caregivers — giving new meaning to The Volunteer State. Alabama, Arkansas and Louisiana each had more than 25% of respondents who identified as informal, unpaid caregivers. Actual percentages may be higher, the authors said, because “many persons who perform caregiving tasks might not identify their actions as caregiving, but rather think of these responsibilities as part of family living.”
And here’s what you may not have read elsewhere before: Across all states, more than 19% of caregivers reported being in fair or poor health, although results varied by state. In Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, West Virginia, and Wyoming, at least 20% of family caregivers reported fair or poor health. The rate was lowest in Minnesota, but even then, it was almost 12%.
The report comes at a time when the need for family caregivers is increasing due to the aging of the U.S. population but the availability of family caregivers is decreasing due to smaller family sizes, more women in the workforce and adult children not living near their parents, the authors said.
So what can we do with the study results?
“[T]he potential for losing informal caregivers because of poor health exists and needs to be addressed to support caregivers and expanded offerings that allow caregivers to address their own health concerns,” the authors said. They hope communities and states will use the information to address the specific needs of local caregivers by improving support systems.
Supporting family caregivers will benefit care recipients, too, according to the CDC.
But the results aren’t just useful for government officials, and we don’t need to wait for more research to act. They serve as a reminder to us to look out for ourselves and our family members, friends and co-workers — and if you’re a paid caregiver, for the family members of those for whom you care. Ask questions. Lend an ear. Offer to help. And try to be kind. And if you’re a family caregiver, know you’re not alone.