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Family caregivers face countless challenges, limited resources

As the baby boomer population ages, more and more seniors are facing health problems that require daily care. Yet the skyrocketing costs of long-term care - not to mention the hurdles involved in qualifying for Medicaid as well as the far-too-common horror stories about nursing home abuse and neglect - have left many to rely on family members instead of institutions.

More than 40 million of these informal caregivers provide for the day-to-day needs of their aging loved ones nationwide, according to a recent Star Tribune article. And more than half of them do so while working other jobs.

The toll these sacrifices take

Providing hands-on care for an elderly loved one is no easy task. Even devoting a few days per week can take a toll. Over time, many caregivers experience stress and fatigue from being stretched too thin - especially if they're also working. Some end up reducing their hours, switching to lesser-paying jobs that offer more flexibility, turning down career opportunities or even retiring early to devote more time to their loved one.

Caregiving involves financial ramifications, too. In Minnesota alone, family caregivers provide an estimated $8.2 billion in unpaid services for their loved ones. Yet many end up suffering financial hardship as a result. On top of missing work, they also shoulder their loved one's financial burdens, from living expenses to medical equipment.

Giving caregivers the support they deserve

Of course, you can't put a price on family. And for many, the months or years spent caring for their loved ones are some of the most precious times in their lives.

Still, it's important for caregivers to know where to draw the line so their own needs don't go overlooked. Even in the best of circumstances, caregivers face a higher risk of mental and physical health problems - especially when they don't have the professional training to handle these issues. They also face a stark lack of support and resources. For example, although the Family and Medical Leave Act offers some protection for those who take time off to care for their sick parents, it doesn't mandate paid leave.

The first step toward giving caregivers the support they deserve is to recognize the critical role they play. Policymakers and health care providers alike should stay attuned to the challenges facing this courageous and compassionate population.

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