A Great Challenge conversation: Who can help when caring becomes a crisis?

How can caring for those closest to us become too much to handle?

The team of experts behind the Great Challenge of the caregiving crisis answered as part of an ongoing online discussion of the issue: Americans are living longer, yet have more chronic illness — and our population is aging. Families are smaller. Healthcare is poorly coordinated. Most jobs don’t allow flexible schedules. And caregiving is unforgivingly stressful for the 45 million or so who have this responsibility.

We know this, and yet caregiving demands still take most families by surprise; they find they are drastically underprepared financially and emotionally to take on this role. Perhaps caregiving will someday become standard family planning, but in the meantime, can institutions step in to assist?

Barry Jacobs, Director of Behavioral Sciences, Crozer-Keystone Family Medicine Residency Program, said that many Fortune 500 companies are allowing flexible schedules for employee caregivers, though it’s more difficult for smaller companies to follow suit.  Carol Levine, Director of the Families and Health Care Project, United Hospital Fund, said this reduces turnover, improves productivity thus pays off in the long run.

In most cases, a caregiver is an intrinsic part of a patient’s medical team, and should be recognized as such by healthcare professions, says Suzanne Geffen Mintz, CEO Emeritus and Co-founder, National Family Caregivers Association. They should be coached appropriately for in-home care, and their assistance and input should be utilized. Mintz says:

“There are only two people consistent across all care settings: patients and their primary family caregiver. This simple statement has a major impact on the safety and coordination of a patient’s care. Doctors would do well to remember this and include family caregivers as lay members of the healthcare team.”

And while there are family leave laws and tax credits on the books to help caregivers, says Peter Arno, Director of the Center for Long Term Care Research & Policy at the School of Health Sciences and Practice, New York Medical College, many may not be aware of and hence don’t take advantage of them.

Click here to read more about the caregiving crisis, see responses from experts, and add your own comments.