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Are Politicians Forgetting About Caregivers?

Shou-Mei Li, left, wraps a scarf around her husband Hsien-Wen Li, who is an Alzheimer's patient, as their daughter Shirley Rexrode, right, looks on, at their home in San Francisco.
Ben Margot
Shou-Mei Li, left, wraps a scarf around her husband Hsien-Wen Li, who is an Alzheimer's patient, as their daughter Shirley Rexrode, right, looks on, at their home in San Francisco.

Finally today, some numbers you did and did not hear during the election season that just ended.

First the ones you heard. So many times they might have appeared in your dreams — like 716 — as in billion dollars. The amount that Republicans claimed the president was cutting from Medicare to fund "Obamacare." The two candidates and their surrogates argued for months over that one.

Of course there was the famous 47 — as in the percentage of voters that Mitt Romney said would never vote for him because they think they're victims. He turned out to be right on the not-voting-for-him part.

There's 2.6 — as in billion dollars — that's how much both the presidential candidates and their allies spent to beat each other up — I mean, uh, campaign — according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Now here's a number that you never heard during this campaign, but I wish you had — 65.7 — as in millions of people. That, according to the National Alliance for Caregiving, is the number of people in the U.S. who are serving as unpaid caregivers of children, adults or both. This is from the Alliance's 2009 report.

While you can read the whole report online when you get a minute, if you are a caregiver yourself, we both know you don't have a minute. So let me tell you more about it.

That 65.7 million caregivers translates into three households in 10, where at least one person is taking care of someone else. Overwhelmingly, the someone receiving care is an aging adult. Overwhelmingly, the person doing the caregiving is also an aging adult. And overwhelmingly, both the people giving the care and the person receiving the care are women.

Why does this matter? Because for all the debate over the war on women, the role of women and demographics, and what role those played in the campaign this year — we never heard about all of these exhausted women bearing the brunt of this country's long-term demographic trends. Trends that include the entry of the vast majority of women into the paid labor force and the aging of the population.

Can I just tell you, both the left and the right are guilty of harboring fantasies in this area. On the right, some people seem to think that if these selfish females would just quit their jobs and go home and take care of those babies and seniors everything would be just great. And for some people it would be.

But that ignores the fact that — for millions of Americans — women's wages are the family's only wages. For millions of others, women's wages are the only thing keeping their families in the middle class. That fantasy also ignores the fact that many people now understand that living longer themselves means they will probably need to save more. To save, most people need to work.

On the left though, there is a fantasy too. If the selfish people — women — who hire professional caregivers would just give up their lattes and spa appointments, pay caregivers more, stop hiring illegal immigrants, or stop demanding such long hours, that somehow everything would be just great.

For some people, maybe that's true. But that ignores the fact that you cannot pay people what you don't have. For millions of Americans, their own wages cannot pay for the cost of the kind of child care or elder care that they — and their self-righteous critics — want kids and seniors to have.

Let me not leave men out of this. There are many men who are taking care of kids and seniors or both. For some reason, they are all but invisible in most debates about balancing work and family, maybe because they don't talk about it either.

So back to where we started out. Why don't Medicare and all those other programs we hear so much about help caregivers more? That's a subject far beyond what I can cover here. But I would send you to author Jane Gross, who has written extensively about this in her blog entries and in her book, A Bittersweet Season.

The short answer is — yes Medicare will pay for a feeding tube. But somebody to take grandma to the grocery store, help her cook and get dressed? Good luck with that, and good luck getting the political elites to notice. Probably because rather than seeing themselves as victims, most caregivers are too busy doing the heavy lifting of life to complain about it.

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