When I was a little kid my mom warned me about giant “tidal waves,” as she called them. She told me that if I saw the shoreline being sucked backward, that I should drop everything I was doing and run to higher ground, because a dangerous tsunami was about to hit.
That was more than 50 years ago. Mom is 93 now and in her final stretch of life. Only God knows how much longer she has. Her five surviving children are doing their best to care for her, along with a small army of doctors, nurses, aides, occupational therapists, physical therapists, and financial advisors. I am grateful to all of them, and as a fellow caregiver (I live near mom and am her medical and durable Power of Attorney), I know first-hand what it’s like to be in the hot seat.
The Hot Seat
Caregiving is a high-stress, deeply complex, full-time job, one for which most of us are ill-equipped. If you’ve done the job, you understand. We try to squeeze that noble work into our regular lives, hoping it won’t impact our careers, our social lives, our health, or our own families. But it does, and in a big way.
Burnout among caregivers is common. Depression and anxiety are too. Families either pull together or tear themselves to pieces. I have experienced both. There are painful, often heart-wrenching decisions to make. Caregivers are at a higher than average risk of chronic or disabling conditions. Understandably, we become distracted from our careers. Those of us who can afford to do so take a leave of absence for a year or three — others just sweat through. We do what it takes, because it’s payback time.
As a project manager, I view my caregiving experience through the lens of my profession. In the back of my mind, I constantly estimate the number of FTEs (Full Time Equivalents) needed to care for just this one, precious, fragile human being, in my case, my mother. The resources required are substantial. In many ways, caring for a disabled elder reminds me of a statistic I once heard about warfare — a wounded soldier requires several healthy people to rescue and provide care. In fact, one way to disable an army is to wound, for wounding sucks up more resources than death.
The Silver Tsunami
I am a boomer. There are some 70 million of us aging up — the proverbial pig in the demographic python — fueling what is now the fastest growing group in the US: Older adults. Due to advances in healthcare, we will live longer in our senior years, needing even more resources than our parents did. The result will be a tidal wave of people needing care — something often referred to as the “silver tsunami” — just as the U.S. is closing its borders to the very low wage workers who typically assist in the hard work of caregiving.
Then consider the financial burn rate. In-home nursing care can easily run over $10K per month, or perhaps half that in an assisted living facility. A lifetime of savings can quickly evaporate, and if the elder lingers, as my mom might, it could send the family into bankruptcy.
A perfect storm is brewing.
The issue of caring for our aged has not, to my knowledge, received the kind of political attention and action as, for example, veteran’s care, although the problem is larger by far — there are more than twice as many unpaid caregivers (43.5 M) as there are veterans (20.4 M). We are like an army marching into battle without a general and without a plan, and as we know from warfare, the wounded suck up resources. Lots of them.
The Giant Sucking Sound
That is the giant sucking sound you hear. Capital. Facilities. Time. Energy. Emotional capacity. The “silver tsunami” is on the horizon, and the shoreline is being pulled back before our very eyes. That’s why I do what I can to sound the klaxon, warning my friends and business associates to take action. I recommend these six steps:
Prepare Advanced Care Planning documents for yourself, and encourage your employees to do the same. Consider offering preparatory services as a benefit. Companies like Iris Plans can help.
Create liberal leave policies for employees who are present caregivers. Let your understanding lead to empathetic action.
Help past caregivers rejoin the workforce. Overlook lapses in their employment and give them a job, just like you would a veteran.
Offer options for medical care outside the US, where costs for many procedures are far lower. You can learn more about that from Rajesh Rao, CEO of Indushealth.
Advocate for national solutions allowing low-cost workers into the US, those skilled in and with an aptitude for, caregiving.
Change is needed, and change is coming, likely with the destructive, chaotic force of a tidal wave. Don’t waste time picking up pretty shells. It’s time to move to higher ground.
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