En español | Finally, after many years, the word is starting to spread on Capitol Hill: Family caregivers need more support. Better yet, the message is reaching both sides of the aisle.
That's my big takeaway from a recent Facebook Live event, Caring for the Caregivers. I was privileged to participate in the discussion, which featured Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) and Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-California). Our moderator was Jean Chatzky, AARP's financial ambassador.
The lawmakers recognize that families in every community and walk of life face caregiving challenges that may last for years. And they pointed out that financial sacrifice is one of these challenges. On average, America's 48 million family caregivers pay more than $7,200 a year out of their own pockets to help loved ones stay independent, AARP research shows.
That comes to 26 percent of a typical caregiver's income, a huge strain on the monthly budget. The financial burden is not shared evenly, however. Hispanic/Latino caregivers spend 47 percent of their income on caregiving on average, and African Americans spend 34 percent.
'Problems are not partisan'
Members of Congress are taking notice. To help ease the financial pressure, Ernst and Sanchez are among the sponsors of the Credit for Caring Act, which would give caregivers a nonrefundable tax credit of up to $5,000 for costs they incur in their valuable work.
"We are very excited about the opportunity for bipartisanship this has created,” Ernst said, adding that she hoped the legislation would get “across the finish line” this year. “We think it is very important to get this legislation done,” she said.
Sanchez agreed. “Problems are not partisan,” she said. “We have to think about solutions.” Sanchez knows firsthand about the realities of caregiving, a commitment she has shared with six of her siblings. “When my father got Alzheimer's, we all took on part of that caregiving burden,” she recalled.
Such efforts have traditionally been viewed as a private, family matter. But I believe that America's struggle with COVID-19 has raised awareness of the critical role played by family caregivers.
Increasing number of medical tasks
In recent years, family members have been taking on medical and nursing tasks that used to be handled only in a medical facility. These include operating medical equipment, caring for wounds, administering injections and monitoring medications. The pandemic only added to caregivers’ responsibilities as they now help loved ones consult with doctors via telehealth visits. Six in 10 caregivers now have medical duties, AARP research shows. In effect, this makes caregivers a new class of health care providers, and it has transformed people's homes into centers of health care.
Proposals to support caregivers have not historically been a high priority for political leaders, but that is starting to change.
As one example, 44 U.S. states and territories have enacted the CARE Act, which establishes certain caregiver rights as public policy. These include requiring hospitals to identify family caregivers in admissions records, notify them of discharge plans and provide training on medical tasks they may have to perform.
The Credit for Caring Act, now pending in Congress, would build on these rights with vital financial support. The nonrefundable tax credit of up to $5,000 could be used to help with costs for medical management, housing expenses, home modifications, caregiving training or education, and other expenses. It is, as Chatzky pointed out in our discussion, a “common sense, bipartisan solution on the table."
Ernst said that the tax break “puts a big dent” in the annual spending faced by caregivers. “We have so many people that are more aware” of their needs than used to be the case, she said.
Added Sanchez: “The least we can do is try to help families that have this extraordinary financial burden.”
Can such efforts succeed in today's Congress? Sanchez offered a hopeful thought: “It's a matter of sitting down and listening to each other and finding solutions that are the best fit.”
It was inspiring to hear such remarks from leaders on both sides of the aisle. Support for family caregivers is an area tailor-made for that kind of constructive, bipartisan approach.
Nancy LeaMond is AARP's chief advocacy and engagement officer.