Three years ago, Tiffanie Rivers became an unpaid family caregiver for her elderly mother who has dementia. At the time of her diagnosis, Tiffanie’s mother lived alone in Massachusetts while Tiffanie lived in Maryland. In the early stages, Tiffanie was able to travel back and forth to check on her mom.
But as the dementia progressed, her mother’s behavior became more dangerous. One night, Tiffanie received a call from an unknown number. Her mother’s voice on the other end came as a shock. She used a stranger’s phone to call Tiffanie while out on a late-night walk alone. After this incident Tiffanie knew her mother needed full-time care and supervision. Long-distance caregiving was no longer an option.
“I was literally having nightmares worried about her safety,” recalls Tiffanie.
Caregiving, especially unpaid family caregiving, is a common reality many Americans. It’s when a family caregiver provides care for a family member or friend who has an illness, injury, or disability.
According to a 2020 AARP caregiving report, more than 1 in 5 Americans are family caregivers. However, caregiving primarily falls on women. Women make up 61% of the family caregivers in the United States. Studies even show that women spend more time providing care compared to men.
These disparities cause women caregivers to experience the physical, emotional and financial challenges of caregiving at higher rates, especially women of color like Tiffanie and low-income women.
For too long, policy in the United States has overlooked the unequal burden of caregiving that women endure. With the pandemic worsening this crisis, there is an urgent need for our government to address these challenges now.
Physical and Mental Health Challenges
Caregivers experience higher levels of physical and mental health problems. The Commonwealth Fund found that women caregivers report poor health at higher rates compared to men. They are also twice as likely to sacrifice needed care. Women also report higher rates of depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions.
“The number one question that comes up for all caregivers is ‘Are you taking care of yourself?’,” says Tiffanie, “It’s impossible to take care of yourself. My health comes second to my mom’s [health].”
In Tiffanie’s family, each generation of women ends up in poverty due to caregiving. “In my family, [caregiving] has destroyed each generation,” says Tiffanie, “Every generation in my family had a pretty decent nest egg and then they become a caregiver and go through all their savings and then they end up dying in poverty.”
Caregiving Challenges During COVID-19
The pandemic has negatively impacted everyone across the country. But women of color and low-income women caregivers have been hit particularly hard. A University of Pittsburgh study found that women, people of color and low-income caregivers experience more negative impacts of the pandemic such as higher rates of COVID-related health concerns and precautions, financial hardship, food insecurity, social isolation, anxiety and depression, and fatigue.
The Biden-Harris Plan For Caregiving
Biden’s campaign promises and recent proposals regarding caregiving are hopeful for addressing this crisis. During his campaign, President Joe Biden proposed a $775 billion plan to invest in the care economy. The plan proposes several measures that would help family caregivers. These include tax credits, 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave, professional and peer support, and increased Medicaid funding.
More recently, Biden proposed the $2 trillion American Jobs Plan which would allocate $400 billion to the care economy. The plan seeks to create jobs, raise wages and enhance working conditions and benefits for caregivers.
Caregiving allows for Tiffanie to keep her mother healthy and safe. But Tiffanie feels like she can no longer take care of her mom alone due to the heavy toll caregiving has taken on her physical and emotional health. “[Caregiving is] the most exhausting thing I have ever done,” Tiffanie admits, “I go through cycles where I bawl my eyes out watching her decline.”
However, Tiffanie cannot afford a full-time caregiver. Under current Medicaid standards, her mom is not eligible for a full-time caregiver. These measures could help family caregivers like Tiffanie find affordable support to help alleviate the burden of caregiving.
Women caregivers are essential to our survival, yet their work is undervalued and their struggles are ignored. As the population continues to age, the demand for caregiving will increase. This means that women will continue to take on these unequal burdens. Our government needs to act now to address these challenges so that women caregivers can be supported for the future.