Nearly 40 years ago, when I was in elementary school, a controlling teacher would issue edicts about what we could and could not do: We could not talk at lunch time, nor could girls wear shorts. In both cases, my lawyer-father encouraged me to launch petitions. I wrote a paragraph about the unfair practices, stapled together a pile of loose-leaf paper, which I circulated at recess, in class, and on the bus. After a week or so, I presented the document—perhaps 100 children had signed, and some parents—to the principal. He was unaware of the rules! And, upon hearing them, reversed them. It was my first attempt at community organizing and pushing back against a policy that was making my life nearly unbearable.
It’s been years, and I’ve occasionally signed petitions exhorting various government agencies to act—or not act—on one issue or another. But until recently, my own petition-bearing days had ended.
In the course of a Twitter chat—where you can actually learn and share more than one might expect within the 140-character limit—someone raised the question of what we could get our government to do to improve the lives of the nation’s 60 million family caregivers. Someone suggested creating a Peace Corps-like program to recruit new graduates to serve family caregivers. I immediately volunteered to launch a petition to do just this, and wrote one on the White House website, which encourages such civic engagement.
My petition is very short. It seemed to me that in the context of trying to raise interest and garner signatures, I needed to be to the point (http://wh.gov/GURc). It reads:
We petition the Obama Administration to: Create a Caregiver Corps that would include debt forgiveness for college graduates to care for our elders. More than 60 million Americans are family caregivers. They face challenges: Health suffers. Finances suffer. Families suffer. Aging Boomers will overwhelm our caregiving resources. Let’s create a Caregiver Corps, that would marry college debt forgiveness with programs that place recent graduates with families and aging services providers. Let’s bridge the generational divide that promotes ageism. Let’s do it!
One of my Twitter followers advised adding more detail to my call. Absent it, she said, no one would take me seriously. So, here it is.
Several factors are bearing down to create a future that will leave families and our beloved elders overwhelmed, exhausted, and bankrupted by the challenges of living with old old age–that is, living past 80–with multiple chronic conditions that will, no matter what you do, kill you. In any given year, some 60 million Americans play the role of family caregivers to another adult who is either old, disabled, or both. (And millions more care for children and young adults who live with serious disabilities.)
These families will run square into a medical system that is ill-equipped to care for them—at least, in terms of providing the kinds of care they will really need, which will not be about rescue and cure. To be sure, they’ll have plenty of access to ICUs and new hips and knees—but they will be shocked and disheartened by the costs of all the things they will need to pay for on their own—private-duty nurses, for instance, and home care; transportation and food and long-term care facilities. Unless they become Medicaid beneficiaries or have a good long-term care policy, those costs will be out of pocket—and unaffordable for most middle class Americans. And the social services agencies meant to serve them continue to be devastated by short-sighted budget cuts. Sequestration alone, one estimate suggests, will eliminate 800,000 Meals on Wheels in the State of Maryland.
And there will be few people to provide the hands-on care that these adults will need. The nation faces a profound shortage of people trained in geriatric care, from geriatricians to nurses to direct care workers. These shortages stem, in part, from the relatively low pay geriatricians earn, and the outright unlivable wage direct care workers receive. By one estimate, by 2030, when all of those Boomers are in their dotage, there will be one geriatrician for every 20,000 older adults.
What’s a country to do? Launch a Caregiver Corps, a program modeled on similar valuable, successful, and long-lived efforts, such as the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, VISTA, and Teach for America. Such a program could recruit volunteers from several pools: high school graduates not trained for the workforce; college graduates facing a tough economy and huge undergraduate debt; and older adults, those healthy enough to want to remain in the workforce and contribute to others’ well-being.
Volunteers could sign up for a year or two. In exchange for their service, they could earn tuition credits to cover the cost of college; they could receive some degree of loan forgiveness, to lessen the burden of debt; they could be paid a stipend that acknowledges the value of their work. They could be assigned to community-based organizations that serve older adults, such as Area Agencies on Aging, non-profit health care institutions, social services agencies, and others. While they could offer enthusiasm, compassion, and insight, they could also learn the kinds of skills required to care for an older adult and his or her family. They could learn about the public policies that affect that care. They could acquire medical and nursing skills—the kind of skills family caregivers use routinely in their daily routine. They could be exposed to older people, and bridge the generational gap that splits our country on this demographic. In the end, they might even be inspired to pursue a career that features caring for one another.
That, it seems to me, is something Americans have always done best—and will have to do more, as we all reach our own old age. Developing people who have the skills, resources, and motivation to help us in our self-interest. And it is in theirs, too. Millenials face the highest unemployment of any group in the country, and finding ways to become marketable, employable adults is critical to their own security and future.
So, let’s try it. Let’s create a Caregiver Corps. Let’s get the Administration to think about it, and weigh in. It’s time, really, to move forward.
Janice Lynch Shuster is a senior writer at the Center for Elder Care and Advanced Illness, Altarum Institute. She is anchoring THIS WEEK’s (as in tomorrow) Sunday Dialogue of the New York Times: in print Tuesday and Sunday. You can find more information here.