Chances are that you or someone you know is a caregiver of an older adult. A survey conducted by AARP found that about 62% of all workers between the ages of 45 and 74 are helping an older adult with their care needs.  The imputed value of the time these caregivers provide is reported to be approximately $450 billion.  This means that the American long-term care system would be that much poorer, in many ways, if we didn’t have these “volunteers” to provide assistance.  In fact, family and friends are the default long-term support system in our country today.  We do not have a publicly funded long-term care system; instead, we rely upon these relatives and friends to make sure that their loved ones are provided the help they need.  Most long-term support occurs in the home, with a relatively small percentage of older adults living in nursing homes or other long-term care facilities such as assisted living.

Assisted living is a market-based alternative for older adults who want to remain independent and have the means to do so, but might require some help with their activities of daily living.  For those who need 24-hour care, nursing homes can be the answer but are an expensive option.  Many nursing home residents pay for their stay until their funds are exhausted, at which time they become eligible for Medicaid.  While there is a broad range of housing alternatives for us as we age, the fact is that most of us want to remain in our own homes and communities and hope that we can continue to do so, even if means we may need a little help from our friends.

Are you providing that vital help and support to an older adult with care needs?  If so, it’s likely you fit the description of the caregiver of today, who typically has a full-time job on top of the time they spend helping that person.  It can be extremely challenging to manage caregiving and your work life. Dealing with an emergency if your mother falls in the middle of the day or even just doesn’t answer the phone when you call to check up on her can create a work-family conflict that reverberates among your supervisor and your co-workers.  Research indicates that nearly 25% of employed caregivers chose to retire early because of their caregiving responsibilities, and very few of these caregivers report that they have a supportive work environment (REF).

The “aging network” - or as we refer to it due to its evolution over the years to include private, faith-based and non profit sectors, the Aging Networks - was initiated in 1965 with the passage of the Older Americans Act.  The network is a loosely affiliated group of organizations providing services and programs designed to help older adults remain in the community despite functional limitations.  For example, senior centers provide an engaging and interesting array of activities and meals for their participants.  Adult day programs provide a supervised day program, often with some health services, for elders who can’t stay alone during the day.  And the area agency on aging network services provides information, referral, and other services to caregivers of an older adult who might live across the country or down the block from the elder they are helping.  In other words, there is help for caregivers that includes not only direct services needed by the care recipient but advice, support, and counsel for caregivers themselves.

If you are a family caregiver, you should care about this network – it is there to help your older family member and you as a caregiver.  Today’s aging network is funded by federal dollars through the Older Americans Act, grants, and public funding through state and local governments. Most services are provided at no charge, or through small donations from the user.

The aging network is important to the older adults who rely on it for transportation to and from their doctor’s appointments, a hot lunch in the middle of the day, and a place to socialize with others.  It is equally important to family and friends of elders who are juggling work and caregiving for a loved one.  Funding for aging network programs and services is chronically under-funded and under threat due to a variety of factors including the inability of Congress to reauthorize the Older Americans Act. Get to know the network in your area, call the Eldercare Locator to find out what is available in your neighborhood or your loved one’s community, and advocate for older adults in your own way for this is not only our past but just as important, this is our future.