The wave of aging baby boomers means more families are taking on the financial and emotional load of caregiving.
“With age comes wisdom, but sometimes age comes alone.” Oscar Wilde was always ready with a quip, but few of us are ready for the more serious aspects of aging. While we all hope to spend our golden years in good mental and physical health, chances are we’ll eventually need help from family members, home health aides, or a long-term care facility.
In the U.S., baby boomers are entering their retirement years and reshaping demographics: the number of Americans ages 65 and older will more than double from 46 million today to more than 98 million by 2060. Add in longer life expectancy, and it’s clear that the rapid “graying of America” will increase demands on already strained resources.
“The rising number of older Americans will put pressure on entitlement programs and create challenges for the labor market and health care systems—as well as family members who provide the majority of care to older adults with disabilities,” cautions a report by the Population Reference Bureau.
The Impact of Aging on Families
Some of the major health issues affecting older populations include chronic disease, falls, depression, and dementia. To help improve health outcomes for older adults, the University of Iowa established the Aging Mind and Brain Initiative (AMBI). This interdisciplinary group seeks innovative ways to diagnose, prevent, and delay natural or disease-related cognitive, functional, and mental decline with aging.
AMBI investigators Kanika Arora, assistant professor of health management and policy, and Sato Ashida, assistant professor of community and behavioral health, are both based in the College of Public Health. Each was drawn to the subject of aging partly through their own experiences of having a grandparent affected by dementia. Through their respective areas of study, Arora and Ashida are examining the impact on families as an aging relative requires more care.
More than 34 million American adults provide unpaid care to someone age 50 or older, and 60 percent of these caregivers are female, according to a National Alliance for Caregiving/AARP report. The same report notes that caregivers often experience high levels of emotional stress, physical strain, and financial strain.
The Costs of Care
Long-term care can be staggeringly expensive. Nationally, the median annual cost for an in-home health aide (44 hours/week) runs about $49,000. A semi-private room in a nursing home is $85,775. The costs for dementia patients can spiral even higher.
Research has shown that when older adults receive more informal care, they are less likely to go into a nursing home. The intent of Paid Family Leave (PFL) is to make it financially easier for employees to take time off from work to care for children and seriously ill family members. While the United States has no such federal policy, a handful of states are offering PFL programs. Arora co-authored a recent study that examined the effect of California’s PFL policy on long-term care use.
“We found that after the beginning of paid family leave in California, the proportion of older adults in nursing homes went down,” says Arora. “This suggests that workers were able to take time off to care for family members, leading to a reduction in nursing home use.”
Some proposals for PFL programs apply only to parental family leave—the birth or adoption of a child—and don’t include care for family members with a chronic illness.
“I think this is a big part of the conversation we’re missing out on, especially if it affects nursing home use,” says Arora. “Given how expensive nursing homes are, and the fact that seniors like to age at home, policymakers need to consider what is included in paid family leave.”
But the issue is not clear cut. “If family members are providing more care, it could reduce nursing home use and save federal and state dollars—but will it create other costs for employers? If a family member isn’t working in order to provide care, is that good for their own health? The fact that we’re offloading this responsibility onto family members is an issue that needs more careful discussion,” Arora says.
Even if adult children aren’t serving as caregivers, they may still take a financial hit if they provide monetary assistance or incur out-of-pocket expenses on behalf of their parents. Arora has investigated the impact of a parent’s dementia diagnosis on their adult children’s wealth. The study looked only at unmarried children and took a comprehensive view of financial outcomes.
“I found that among those people who were typically adding to their wealth over the years, once there was a parental dementia diagnosis, they were adding much less or nothing at all to their wealth,” Arora says.
Caregiving often requires many partners. Ashida studies caregiver networks—systems of family members, paid help, and others who provide emotional or instrumental support that enables a primary caregiver to care for an individual.
“A lot of studies look at the caregiver and their feelings, but few studies talk to other people to get their perspective of what’s going on in a caregiving relationship and how that might impact the family dynamics and context,” Ashida says.
One of Ashida’s studies looked at how the expectations members in a caregiving network have about each other can affect everyone involved.
“If my sister is not meeting my expectations in participating in caregiving, it has a detrimental impact on my psychological well-being,” Ashida explains. “That sets the tone for the whole family and the cohesion goes down. Ultimately, the care that people receive is impacted by that.”
Another pilot study led by Ashida and funded by AMBI examined the relationship and interactions among family caregivers and paid caregivers (e.g., home health aides, homemaker services, and meal service providers).
“We found that higher collaboration between family caregivers and paid caregivers was associated with higher job satisfaction among the providers and lower depression among the family caregivers,” Ashida says. “Another finding was that when family caregivers perceived that they received emotional support from paid service providers, their mental health score was higher. Even though agencies are focused on task-oriented services, our study suggests that having additional emotional support services could have positive implications on the psychological well-being of the family caregiver, which may allow them to provide better care.”
The Changing Landscape of Caretaking
A number of factors have changed the caretaker role in American society, including high divorce rates, more women in the workforce, families having fewer children, and geographic mobility.
“Family members are moving away, so we need some kind of structure that can support older people in their homes,” Ashida says. “As [aging adults] develop more severe disabilities, who’s going to take on that caregiving role? It’s coming down to community-based providers. It’s not only less expensive, but most older adults prefer to stay at home in their community.”
“Long-term care is inequitable,” Arora adds. “If you’re wealthy, you can afford care. If you’re poor, there is Medicaid. It’s the people in the middle who are affected very differently. We need a long-term care solution from a policy perspective that doesn’t rely on a means-tested program like Medicaid.”
Both researchers mention the importance of engaging seniors with their communities. Arora points to the AARP Foundation Experience Corps, whose trained volunteers work with students in high-need elementary schools. Ashida gives an example from Japan where older adults and families with young children live in condominiums and share a communal kitchen, living spaces, and yard.
“The idea is that older adults can contribute by making meals and supervising kids’ homework or play while their parents are at work,” Ashida says. “I think the key is inter-generational interactions where older people are contributing to younger people. They enjoy it and have a purpose in life, and the younger children look up to the older adults.”
This story originally appeared in the spring 2018 issue of Insight magazine.
A new study from the University of Iowa and Syracuse University suggests that a more inclusive paid family leave (PFL) policy could be effective in reducing nursing home use among older adults.
Kanika Arora, assistant professor of health management and policy at the University of Iowa College of Public Health, and Douglas Wolf, professor of public administration and international affairs at Syracuse University, analyzed data collected in all 50 states between 1999 and 2008.
The authors estimate that across alternative state comparison groups, the passage of PFL consistently reduced nursing home occupancy in California by .5 to .7 percentage points among those aged 65 and older. This represents an 11 percent relative decline in nursing home utilization.
According to Arora, this study is the first study to examine long-term care outcomes associated with a state-level policy on paid family leave and has demonstrated that the provision of this leave reduces nursing home use among older adults.
“While the current administration has proposed a federal paid family leave program, it is only focused on providing paid leave to families after the birth or adoption of a child,” Arora says. “The results of this study suggest that they should consider expanding the benefits of such a program to individuals with a seriously ill family member.”
The study will be published in the Winter 2018 edition of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. A preview version is available at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/pam.22038/full#references
The Social Security system is facing a crisis. Its trust fund reserves will be empty by 2034—less than 20 years from now— meaning that if Congress can’t find other funding, it will have to reduce benefits significantly. That could make tens of millions of Americans sicker, not just poorer, according to a new University of Iowa study that links differences in Social Security benefits to differences in health outcomes.
The idea that income and health are interrelated is itself not new. “Studies have long shown that people who are wealthier are generally also healthier,” says author Padmaja Ayyagari, CPH assistant professor of health management and policy. “But it isn’t always clear how much of that association is causal, and how much of it is due to things we can influence.”
To get a better handle on the issue, specifically in the context of Social Security, Ayyagari took what researchers call a quasi-experimental approach. Using data from a large nationwide survey of elderly people taken in 1993, she compared various health measures of those born during 1915-17—beneficiaries of a legislative loophole known as the “Social Security Notch,” which gave them substantially higher benefits—to those born just outside that window.
“Overall I found evidence that higher benefits lead to better health,” says Ayyagari.
The linkage was apparent for most available measures of health, including cognitive abilities and the ability to engage in ordinary daily activities. Her analysis suggests, for example, that a $1,000 boost in annual Social Security income is associated with an increase in the net cognitive score by about 4 percent and reductions in limitations on daily activities by about 16 percent. The association between higher Social Security income and better cognition was strongest among those in the upper range of cognition.
Against the backdrop of America’s extremely costly health care system, the finding raises the intriguing possibility that a little extra Social Security income could end up paying for itself by reducing elderly people’s Medicare and other taxpayer-funded health expenditures.
“That’s an issue I’d like to follow up on,” Ayyagari says.
Read the full paper online.
This story originally appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of InSight.