Caring for elderly loved ones has become more common for more people.  With advances in medical technology, healthcare, and living conditions people today are living longer, healthier, and more active lives.  Globally, today's average life expectancy is about 65 years for men, and more than 69 years for women.   To add perspective, someone born in the United States in 2004 can expect to live about 30 years longer than an American born 100 years earlier, and life expectancy continues to increase.  A woman who reaches 65 can now expect to survive on average, to the age of 85. Her 65-year-old male counterpart can expect to reach 82.  Also, it is now much more common to see people living to extreme old age (defined as 100 or more).  In centuries past it was extremely rare to find a person living past 100, now in the United States alone there are nearly 100,000 persons who are over a century old.   Finally, of the 70 million “baby boomers”, statistically over 3 million of them can expect to reach the age of 100.  As people age their need for care will increase, the issues then become who will provide the care and how.  

Today in the United States, people who are often still raising their own children provide about 80% of the care for their elderly family members. Typically, one person becomes the primary caregiver and siblings or other family members provide support when/where they can.  In most cases, the primary caregiver is a female (spouse, daughter [in most cases], daughter-in-law, or granddaughter).  Less frequently, the primary caregiver role is assumed by males (spouse, son, or grandson).  While this is becoming more common, it is still the exception and not the rule.   As caregivers, women bear the responsibility far more often then men, but the percentage of male caregivers is increasing.  Some estimates of male caregivers is now as high as 40%. 

While every situation is unique, a broad survey can yield a profile of the "typical"  caregiver and care recipient.  A 2004 study conducted for AARP and the National Alliance for Caregiving found that the typical caregiver is a 46-year-old woman. She is a high school graduate, married, and works full time outside the home, earning an average salary of $35,000 per year. The recipient of her care is a 77-year-old mother, mother-in-law, or grandmother. The caregiver devotes an average of 18 hours per week to the task over the course of about 4 1/2 years.

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To fully appreciate the “typical” example, please remember she is frequently also raising her own family along with caring for her parent or in-law.  This circumstance is a direct result of women having children later and parents living longer.   On the other side of the coin the percentage of male caregivers is increasing as a direct result of higher divorce rates and more women in the workforce.   Men now assume more of the caregiving role that had traditionally been filled by daughters or daughters-in-law. 

No matter your gender or exact circumstance, caring for an elderly loved one can be a difficult and time consuming endeavor.  Speaking from experience, it can also be one of the greatest and most fulfilling things you ever do. 

I was the primary caregiver for my grandmother until she passed away a few years ago and caring for her while working and tending to my own family was exhausting.  Eventually, we hired a professional aid.  There just weren’t enough hours in the day for me to get everything done, and also my Grandmother loved being around people.  Having someone in the home provided her companionship while simultaneously giving me piece-of-mind that she was safe and well cared for when I couldn’t be there.  I worked a “full” 10-12 hour day, then frequently visited her before driving home (about 40 minutes away).  While this was beyond exhausting it was one of the best experiences of my life.  I got to know her in a way that I never did before and in a sense was able to repay some of the love and care she had given me all of my life.  When she died, I cried until I was dehydrated, but I was comforted by her very last words to me; “I love you”.  Because of those three words and all I had done for her I sleep well at night. 

Derrick Y. McDaniel is the Managing Director of Caring Hearts of New Jersey Home Care, located at 4 South Orange Ave., #302, South Orange, NJ 07079. Phone - 973-532-2713.