Providing care for a loved one who needs help with the basic tasks of daily living is worth a lot of money. A recent study values this kind of no-charge family care provided by 42.1 million caregivers at more than $450 billion a year.
But the cost to the caregiver can be high. Researchers at Ohio State University estimate that people who spend more than 21 hours a week assisting an adult with activities like getting in and out of bed, taking a shower and using the bathroom pay a high price. Some 94 percent reported pain in at least one body part. More than 76 percent said their back hurt, and 43 percent said they had pain in their knees, shoulders or wrists. Sixty-six percent said the pain affected their own quality of life.
"Lifting is only one piece of it," says the author of the study, Amy Darragh, an occupational therapist and assistant professor at Ohio State's School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences. "Working in a small cramped environment, maintaining an awkward posture, and having to carry heavy equipment also contributes."
Insurance to pay for professional long-term care isn't part of very many couples' retirement planning. It is hard to appreciate the importance of a long-term care plan when you are approaching retirement feeling healthy and energetic. But we're not young forever. Of the caregivers interviewed in the study, about 47 percent were 75 and older.
How to prepare for a caregiver
If you have a do-it-yourself long-term care plan, Darragh and her study offer some advice that can make this a less onerous solution.
Remodel in advance. Study participants talk about the difficulty of helping frail people go up and down steps and maneuver in bathrooms that are too small. Thinking about these issues and fixing them before they are a problem can make life easier -- and even increase the value of the residence -- whether or not anyone eventually needs special care.
Get training. As one of the study participants said, "Once he's fallen and I have to pick him up, he's dead weight, and we struggle with that." Darragh says learning how to mitigate that and other issues can make a big difference. She recommends taking caregiver classes offered by the Red Cross and area agencies on aging.
Set up a caregiving network. Figure out who else will help and earmark some resources to pay for occasional assistance. "The vast majority of people we spoke to were committed to caregiving and many of them felt that it was a privilege to be able to provide this kind of support," Darragh says. "But caregiving is hard, and it is OK if you're not able to do it all on your own."
Get professional financial help. If you plan to rely on family care -- and possibly Medicaid -- as a long-term care solution, get expert help setting up a financial plan that takes this into account. Darragh says keeping good records also can make a big difference if at some point you need government help.
Study how technology can help, too.