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Retire Better: These problems in plain sight are creating a huge crisis for older Americans

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What’s the most common occupation in the United States? You’ll never guess. It’s caregivers. 

Altruistic Americans, usually family members, who care for someone who needs help taking care of themselves. More than one in five adults—an estimated 53 million—were caregivers in 2020, providing care for an adult or child with special needs during the preceding year. This number grew more than a quarter between 2015 and 2020, and while there are people in all age groups who need the assistance of a caregiver, it’s a reflection of the fact that senior citizens—the group most likely to need help—are the fastest-growing demographic group in the United States. The AARP says that two-thirds will eventually need long-term services and support.

Read: Who is going to take care of you when you’re old? Childfree retirement planning answers the questions all of us should be asking

This expanding need for what I call “elder assistance” parallels an all-too American phenomenon: living alone. As the number of Americans age 65+ soars—it’s projected to rise 60% to 81 million by 2040— tens of millions will live alone. A Harvard University study says that 58% of Americans over 80 already do. And, says a separate study by the Cleveland Clinic, this isolation is accompanied by cognitive decline. “It’s estimated that as many as half of people 85 years of age and older have dementia.” Others may have a physical infirmity. Some poor souls may fall into both categories. The burden on children or relatives will be enormous. And that’s if those family members are nearby. It’s hardly uncommon for children to live several hours or several time zones away from an elderly parent. This makes it difficult, if not impossible, to be there on a regular basis. 

Read: How robots and your smart fridge may keep you out of a nursing home

Caring for a parent, relative or neighbor in their declining years is a labor of love. But from an economic standpoint, who would do it for a stranger? It’s a difficult, often thankless and extremely low-paying job. According to Talent.com, the median salary is about $28,000, meaning that half of all caregivers make less than that. That’s $538 a week before taxes. This helps explain why there’s a national shortage of paid caregivers now, and AARP projects it’ll get worse. 

The unemployment rate is currently 3.6%, and there are more than 11 million job openings in numerous industries. Who would sign up to be a caregiver?

Don’t think the government will come to the rescue. Medicare doesn’t cover long-term care. As usual, money helps solve problems. Folks can buy supplemental coverage through various Medicare Advantage plans from private insurers, but this can be a minefield. Costs can be all over the map and may or not cover certain things. Tread carefully. That’s if you even have the money to consider such things. 

Aside from being able to afford it, there are numerous things to consider with caregivers. What are their qualifications? What is their experience? What about a background check? These are all vital questions, considering that a caregiver could be a total stranger. Trust is essential. 

If you are looking for a caregiver for yourself, or a relative, AARP has a good resource guide. It’s never too early to plan, and never too early to discover what resources may be available to you or a loved one. 

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