Imagine a 49-year-old woman who is caring for an aging parent while at the same time helping to care for a child or grandchild.
According to federal data, the woman described here is typical of the “sandwich generation,” that group of adults who are caring for aging parents and younger children or grandchildren.
She is one of 13 million Americans providing care to parents and children. And they are often searching for help.
Monday, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey addressed that need during a news conference at Pennsylvania College of Health Sciences on Lemon Street in the city.
Currently, more than three of every four Americans 65 and older suffer from chronic conditions that ultimately might require assistance in order to live at home. Yet, there are roughly only 800,000 home health aides — or “formal” caregivers — in the United States.
To bridge the gap, Casey plans to introduce the Caregiver Corps bill. The legislation would empower local community agencies to help train and monitor volunteer caregivers over the age of 18, who would provide assistance to families by cleaning, preparing food or even shopping for people who want to remain at home while spelling family members.
It would enable older Americans to live independently by remaining in their homes longer.
Casey noted that there are “tens of millions” of willing volunteers but no formal structure to direct them to those who need assistance.
His proposal would direct the federal Department of Health and Human Services to establish agencies and to enroll volunteers.
It could be an area Office of Aging; a college or university; or a state, county or municipality. Those organizations would screen, train and monitor volunteers. He envisions a two-year commitment but acknowledges that shorter time frames might work better for young people who want to volunteer but who also have other commitments.
Casey said sponsoring units could provide volunteers with a stipend, tuition credit or even academic credits. Organizations also could seek HHS grants.
The proposal begins to tackle a growing problem. By 2020, nearly 40 perent of the American population will be over the age of 60.
Nor is this country alone. Britain, which expects its over-65 age cohort to double by 2030, is looking at Germany’s “multigenerational centers,” where elderly people, including those with dementia, sing songs and interact with children who have been brought there for day care services.
Sweden spends more on its elderly population as a proportion of GDP than any other nation in the European Union. Yet in the past 15 years, Sweden has beefed up its volunteer services to the elderly, creating centers to facilitate the connection between organizations and individuals and people in need and people wanting to help.
Jan Bergen, chief operating officer at Lancaster General Health, said there is a need for a structured volunteer program, and that LGH is willing to be a part of the process.
Casey’s proposal is a starting point, but it also could be much more than that. It could provide a path to encourage interaction between young and old alike and to bridge generations rather than building walls.
And it would offer a much-needed respite for that 49-year-old woman who is devoting countless hours caring for parents as well as children.