SALT LAKE CITY — Caring for aging parents or loved ones is a reality for more than 40 million Americans. Many caregivers are doing it in addition to full-time employment and raising children of their own, a situation that is redefining the term “midlife crisis,” according to Frank G. Infurna, associate professor of psychology at Arizona State University.
“(Midlife crisis) can best be described as the ‘big squeeze,’” writes Infurna in The Conversation, “during which middle-aged adults are increasingly confronted with the impossible choice of … how to split their time and money between themselves, their parents and their kids.”
Despite the various topics on which the 2020 campaign might engage, many believe elder care’s watershed moment could prove to be the unifying force that voters — and candidates — have been waiting for.
Rachel McCullough, an organizer with the national campaign Caring Across Generations, told The Atlantic her group has been canvassing across the country on the issue of caring for aging parents. Their intention is to get presidential candidates to take a clear position on caregiving, and to start in Iowa:
“(I)f (a candidate’s) goal in the face of Trump and Trumpism is to speak to and unite the vast majority of Americans, with a focus on women — this is the issue.”
Where the candidates stand
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., released a plan this month to improve the prescription drug costs and Social Security benefits related to senior care. Klobuchar intends to pay for these changes by “clos(ing) the trust fund loopholes that allow the wealthy to avoid paying taxes on inherited wealth.”
In the June debates, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., announced her support for the “Medicare for All” plan Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., introduced in 2017. The plan extends the same medical care seniors have to the rest of the population, but candidates also support it as a foundation for elder care in the U.S., reports HuffPost.
“Among the Democratic candidates, Warren and Sens. Cory Booker (N.J.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) are co-sponsors of Sanders’ bill and Reps. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) and Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) are co-sponsors of a similar House bill introduced by Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.),” Huffpost reported.
Additionally, 15 of the 23 presidential candidates agreed that insurance should cover nursing homes as a means of long-term care, according to a New York Times health care policy survey.
Family leave proposals highlight a key difference between the parties’ approaches to elder care. Gillibrand has proposed a plan that would provide “all workers the ability to take three months of paid leave whether they were a new parent, a caregiver for another family member or ill themselves,” says Vox. It would be paid for by a $.02 tax increase on worker wages.
Republican plans meanwhile, would limit three months of paid leave to new parents, and would be paid for out of individual Social Security benefits, Vox reports.
In order to keep Social Security viable, former Vice President Joe Biden has “called for a ‘pro-growth progressive tax code’ and getting rid of loopholes” that help primarily wealthy families, says CNBC.
Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke advocates eliminating the cap on Social Security taxes altogether, CNBC also reports, allowing it to remain securely in place for the coming generations.
Why campaign promises falter
Although the presidential candidates are paying attention to health care, it doesn’t mean their awareness will translate into action. The political game can be a long one, reports Vox, which says that political strategy often wins out over even the most pressing issues:
“Even if Democrats are lucky enough to win full control of the government in 2020, … should they try to enact another major health care overhaul? Or should they use their time, energy, attention and political capital for other pursuits?”
These questions can be the result of the many moving pieces involved with America’s governing process, the compromises necessary once any proposed legislation has to go to the Hill.
“Promises don’t drive elections,” says Patrick Maney, political historian at Boston College, in an interview with USA Today. “It’s the candidate’s vision of the direction for the country that voters look for.”
In other words, a candidate’s plans are as much about optics as they’ve ever been. And they should be, says Investopedia, since campaigning for president is essentially a marketing process intended to evoke emotions and sway voter opinion:
“In an ideal world, each campaign promise would be presented with the complete story, but the political process doesn’t seem to promote that concept.”
What’s at stake for caregivers
With the aging baby boomer generation, “older people are projected to outnumber children (by 2030) for the first time in U.S. history,” according to Jonathan Vespa of the U.S. Census Bureau.
This means caregivers need candidates to make good on their word.
“When we think of an adult child caring for a parent, what comes to mind is a woman in her late 40s or early 50s,” Lynn Friss Feinberg, senior strategic policy adviser for AARP’s Public Policy Institute told Kaiser Health News. “But it’s now common for people 20 years older than that to be caring for a parent in their 90s or older.”
The pressure to facilitate parents’ desire to age in their homes is substantial for adult children, who often are forced into the situation because of the steep costs of third-party care.
“Adult children can … become a health care “expert” for their parents in the blink of an eye. Many do not have the experience, background or time to make informed decisions about health care,” Forbes reports.
“They can face the pressure of trying to keep the peace with siblings and other family members while they work to keep their aging parents comfortable and as healthy as possible.”
Along with family related stress, responsibility for aging parents causes work-related stress for caregiving children.
According to a study by the Government Accountability Office, 56% of working people who are also providing elder care experienced job impacts such as arriving to work late, leaving work early, or taking time off during the day. In addition, 17% changed to part-time work from full-time, and 16% took a leave of absence. This often results in a caregiver drawing on Social Security or retirement benefits earlier than expected as well as reductions in those benefits.
As a result, the caregiving generation’s own safety net begins to fray as the overburdened financial cycle continues.
“We found that midlife, generally considered to encompass the ages of 40 to 65, has become a time of crisis,” says Infurna. “But it’s not the kind of crisis that exists in popular imagination — when parents … feel compelled to make up for lost time and relive their glory days. There’s little money for a red sports car. No time for jetting around the world. And a trophy wife? Forget that.”