Washington

Paid Leave Matters to Aging Americans Too

In the halls of Congress, policymakers are working hard to write legislation that would help rebuild our economy and provide families with much-needed support. The House version of the Build Back Better Act includes national paid family and medical leave. The Senate bill should do the same.

You may have heard that enacting national paid leave would help define President Joe Biden’s legacy and provide financial security for tens of millions of Americans — especially new parents, front-line workers and women of color. But there are two groups that would greatly benefit from paid leave who have frequently been left out of this national conversation: aging Americans and their caregivers. For them and their families, the stakes are immense.

The pandemic has only exacerbated the daily health risks that seniors face. In the early months of the pandemic, adults ages 65 and older accounted for 80 percent of the deaths from the virus. But there’s more. Advancing age is the most important risk factor for cancer — those ages 60 and older are more than three times as likely to be diagnosed than people in their 40s. Sadly, the statistics are equally or more startling for cardiovascular and neurodegenerative disease.

These are just a few of the many reasons older Americans often rely on family members and close friends to provide support. The average recipient of unpaid care in the United States is 69 years old.

The caregivers who quietly look after these aging individuals are a vital part of our nation’s social and economic infrastructure. Without them, our health care system would crumble, and older Americans would have nowhere to turn.

Many of these individuals aren’t just caring for their aging parents. They are part of the “sandwich generation” that is simultaneously helping their parents while also raising young kids.

It’s time to treat these everyday heroes with the respect and support they deserve. Right now, we’re coming up short. Six in 10 unpaid caregivers don’t have access to paid leave at their workplace. And that doesn’t include many others who are forced to turn down caring for injured, ill or disabled family members because their employer won’t offer the flexibility they need.

Those of us who have cared for an aging or ailing loved one know we can be called upon at any time of day or night. Doctor appointments don’t fit neatly around work schedules. Often, a complicated mix of medications must be given at specific times.

And though the emotional support we provide to loved ones is a key component of caregiving, most provide their loved ones with far more than that. More than half of caregivers perform complicated, life-saving tasks, including administering injections and providing wound care for adults ages 50 years or older.

Family caregivers help their loved ones live at home — where they want to be. Researchers have linked paid family leave programs to a decline in nursing home utilization, showing how critical it is to support family caregivers in the workplace. Throughout the pandemic, overcrowded nursing homes have sadly fueled many of the larger and deadlier COVID-19 outbreaks. Especially as we fight another pandemic wave, failing to support caregivers is a direct threat to older Americans’ health and wellbeing.

For decades, our country has neglected this critical component of seniors’ quality of life. As our nation’s population grows older, we can’t afford to do that any longer.

Just 10 years ago, adults ages 80 and older had an average of seven potential family caregivers to call upon. According to research from AARP, by 2050 that number will fall to fewer than three. Since nearly 80 percent of working adults lack access to paid family leave, we could face a massive caregiving crisis if Congress doesn’t act soon.

There is a better way. A national, comprehensive paid family and medical leave program would empower caregivers with the freedom and financial security to look after their aging loved ones. The House is on the verge of providing this support to those in need and the Senate should quickly do the same. Older Americans who rely on care from loved ones deserve no less.

 

Nancy LeaMond is the AARP’s chief advocacy and engagement officer. Debra Ness is the president of the National Partnership for Women and Families.

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