On Long-Term Care, Let's Listen to the Caregivers

The government CLASS proposal to help pay for it would provide expensive but skimpy benefits.

Video: Health Insurance Basics

Video: Health Insurance Basics

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What caregivers find the hardest is the juggling of their loved ones' needs and their work and other family obligations. But their wish list seems relatively modest, considering the magnitude of their contributions. Some help with transportation is a big one. Occasional respite, with the help of a seasoned elder-sitter, is another. Caregivers want information on keeping their loved ones safe, par-ticularly about access to new technologies such as emergency response systems, sensors, and electronic devices that can connect a home to a doctor or medical setting. About 30 percent would like help managing stress. Financially, the highest priority was a tax credit of $3,000.

CLASS could be transformed into a program that spurs efforts to meet such needs, supporting technology initiatives to advance monitoring and safety, tax credits or vouchers to unpaid caregivers, and grants to community groups, both public and private, to create or expand assistance with transportation or elder day care. These are low-cost proposals, considering their tremendous value. As the report concludes, without the army of unpaid caregivers, there would be a disastrous shift of elderly into public programs like Medicaid and a decline in our seniors' quality of life.

What's often unrecognized is that most families take on this role lovingly, without thinking twice. And though caregiving still falls mostly to the wife, mother, or the proverbial lead daughter, it's increasingly taken on by the husband, father, or son. Or even grandson, as I learned in a recent visit to the Long Island City neighborhood where I grew up, a place of hardworking people with little formal education who loved their families above all and sent their kids to the parish school nearby and then off to fancy colleges on scholarship. I found that one of our dearest neighbors had died just a few years ago, after having raised three gold-star daughters and, finally, nursing his wife during her long struggle with cancer. When he fell ill himself, it was his grandson who took a leave from school to move into that same little house and care for his grandfather.

Like that famous ballad sung by the Hollies back in the Sixties says: "It's a long, long road. . . . And the load doesn't weigh me down at all. He ain't heavy; he's my brother." I lost my 87-year-old mother in October after a long, hard illness. We cared for her in her home near ours and, when it was time, brought her back to our neighborhood in Long Island City for mass and burial alongside Dad. As I too learned, she was no burden; she was Mom.