This opinion piece first appeared in The Washington Post. Read the original there.
I cannot do it all. I’m done pretending that I can — and you should be done pretending, too.
Before covid-19 hit, I was already my parents’ grocery shopper and medication filler and IT support person. I financed their retirement. And since my dad passed away in April, I have been balancing my career as a policy director with cooking, doing laundry and organizing bills for my mom.
I am not alone. Millions of middle-aged adults are caring for an older parent while also raising a child. In a pandemic, this invisible labor force is stretched even thinner. It’s time to ditch the failed, go-it-alone approach when it comes to care.
People over 65 are on track to outnumber children by 2035 for the first time in U.S. history. The caregiving need is about to explode, but the country’s patchwork of policies and programs won’t necessarily help us.
Medicare and Medicaid cover some home care, but not in most cases. With Medicaid, families must spend down to poverty to access services, and nearly 1 million Americans are on wait lists for care to transition from nursing facilities back into their homes. Families that don’t qualify for these programs end up drawing on life insurance policies, retirement savings or additional loans to care for those they love.
Consider Washington state resident Christina Keys. She ended a 20-year career in tech to manage the full-time care of her mom and partner. Her mother was left partially paralyzed after a hemorrhagic stroke, and her partner can no longer work because of a stroke of his own. Her video diary below reveals how she barely scrapes by, financially and emotionally.
For the 6 in 10 U.S. households making less than $75,000 a year, care is unaffordable. A home health aide costs on average $52,620 annually, while a full-time childcare program costs on average nearly $16,000. The financial strain is even greater for Black Americans, who spend on average twice as much of their incomes on caring for others as White Americans.
Like Keys, most caregivers have to cobble together informal systems of care. This is especially true for Black and immigrant families such as my own.
Brooklynite Franklyn Mena and his family embody this. Below, his video diary is a window into collective care across generations. He applies the lessons learned from his mom, a professional caregiver, to support his grandmother and vulnerable neighbors.
Mena co-founded an organization to grow and distribute fresh produce to the community. It is a lifeline for many during the pandemic, but the cost of a medical emergency could threaten his family’s well-being, his organization’s future and, therefore, his community’s health.
Mena, Keys and I need economic policies that allow everyone to age and have care with dignity, and we’re far from alone in thinking so. More than 70 percent of Americans want the federal government to become more involved in providing support in this area.
A robust care foundation should support care across the life span and include universal childcare, paid family leave, and long-term support services for the elderly and people with disabilities. Congress must pass bills that provide vulnerable family caregivers and essential workers the health protections, technical training and financial support they need to navigate the covid-19 crisis and beyond.
A conversation on this growing need is finally entering our national discourse. More than 70 percent of Americans want the federal government to become more involved in providing support in this area. And for the first time in modern history, we saw a party’s presidential nominee announce a $775 billion plan to rebuild our nation’s caregiving economy by bailing out childcare centers and constructing new ones, funding in-state universal pre-K, and expanding alternatives to nursing facilities. Though it’s light on funding details, it addresses some of the most urgent paid and unpaid caregiving crises families are facing at this moment.
The pandemic has shown the toll of isolation and the cost of underinvesting in childcare and health. Informal family caregivers already knew this. As the rest of America wakes up to it, we need to finally treat this informal care network as the labor force it is.