It is impossible to put a price on the personal care, attention and emotional support given by millions of family caregivers. These people willingly offer their help, contributing time, energy and often their own self-interest to caring for a spouse, parent or other loved one. These services are a huge emotional and social value to the person receiving them, but also to society.

In 2013, the American Association of Retired People sponsored a study of the economic impact of family caregivers. AARP calculated that in that year, family caregivers had provided 37 billion hours of care worth an estimated $470 billion to their parents, spouses and other loved ones. That figure of $470 billion has certainly grown in the past five years, probably faster than the American economy in general. Using a compound growth rate of 5% per year, it would total about $600 billion in 2018.

These figures do not include the very substantial amount of money that family caregivers often spend out-of-pocket as part of their support. A separate AARP study found that in 2016, family caregivers spent an average of $6,954 on out-of-pocket expenses related to caregiving. Without a doubt, family caregivers are the backbone in our social structure. Let’s think about some things we can do to help them.

A good start would be to think ahead about your own situation and those of your spouse, family and loved ones. There are a number of things you can do ahead of the needed care to make this situation easier to manage. The very first is to “take care of yourself,” as simple as that sounds. Being proactive about caregiving now will help when you, your spouse or family member need the help. You are more likely to need caregiving assistance or in-home care for yourself if you neglect this duty. If you are called on to be the caregiver, being in good health will make a big difference.

Second, have conversations early with both your family and the person(s) who are most likely to need the help of a caretaker. Importantly, try to understand the person’s (or your own) choices and how they may change with age. Do not assume that ‘home instead’ will always be the best option. Start now to make a list of resources to help, when and if the time comes.

Start now to think about the different types of care and payment options. Very importantly, learn the difference between Medicare and Medicaid and how these programs might affect your loved one’s situation. Seek out expert advice to guide yourself or a family member through the financial and emotional challenges of caregiving. This is one of the keys to a safe and successful transition to a senior lifestyle.

As a long-range goal, become aware of the RAISE (Recognize, Assist, Include, Support and Engage) Family Caregivers Act that was passed by Congress and signed into law this past year. This law requires the government to develop a national strategy to support Americans who help loved ones live independently at home. The provisions of the act require only study, not specific action, but a proposal by the AARP and other senior advocate groups hopes to achieve these goals:

  • Tax credits of 50% of eligible expenses.
  • A broad definition of eligible expenses that includes improvements to the home, purchase of equipment to assist the care recipient, or other goods, services, and supports, like home care aides, respite care, and assistive technology.

The model proposal detailed above, supported by the AARP and other senior advocates, would change the tax system to recognize the very real economic contribution that family caregivers make to our nation. Saying, “Job well done,” to caregivers is fine; giving them some real economic help is even better.