Joan Griffin has a warning for us: It's coming.
Griffin, an associate professor of health services research at Mayo Clinic College of Medicine, said the silver tsunami heading our way will bring with it a caregiving crisis. As our population ages, families will be challenged to take responsibility for care that was once offered by professionals in clinics and hospitals.
We talked with Griffin about why caregiving has been women's work, the risks and benefits of being a caregiver and what older adults can do to be prepared for the last stage of life.
Q: Why is caregiving such a hot topic right now?
A: We're at a crunch time, now that baby boomers are coming of age. We have a high demand for caregivers and not enough supply. Plus, there are more demands being placed on family caregivers, services that used to be provided by professionals.
We're going to face a huge crisis, and I don't think we're prepared for it.
Q: Why is this a women's issue?
A: Women make up 85 to 90 percent of all caregivers. Why does it fall into the laps of women? There's a gender bias. Historically, women have been at home more and have had more flexible hours. Now, you have women who have careers and who have to balance work and family — and caregiving.
It's a huge issue for women and huge issue for women's health.
Q: A health issue? How so?
A: The risks are there. There is some research that there are higher risks of depression, anxiety, even higher incidence of disease and chronic disease. We don't know if it's biological, or if it's just that caregivers don't take good enough care of themselves.
Q: Does that happen a lot?
A: Caregivers get overwhelmed all the time. We call it the caregiver burden. Just how burdened depends on how long a person is caregiving and how intensely and what other things they've got going on in their lives.
It also can depend on the personalities of the caregiver and the patient. A frail elder getting weaker and weaker but with good cognition can be easier than dealing with a loved one struggling with dementia.
Q: That doesn't sound challenging; it sounds grim.
A: There are positive things that can come out of caregiving. People end up having a much closer relationship, and they feel like they've done the right thing.
There's definitely a sense of fulfillment when you tackle a difficult situation with love and caring.
Q: Can you give us a best-case scenario for caregiving?
A: Somebody who has a lot of family involved, and they're all on the same page as the caregiver. You've got enough money. (Caregiving can cause some families to spiral into poverty.) And confidence. The confidence that you can do this, that you can provide good care.
The issue of control is huge.
A: Yes, if a caregiver had a choice and some sense of control over the decision [to become a caregiver], they tend to fare better than if they felt they didn't have a choice.
Q: Does that sense of control play into the gender bias in caregiving?
A: Yes. Male caregivers are more likely to take care of things like finances and benefits — things that can be controlled. But they don't do a lot of hands-on care.
Q: Do you think that will change?
A: The gender disparity in caregiving is going to have to change. I would hope that we're raising a generation of young men who are comfortable enough to do this.
Q: How can we help someone who's acting as a caregiver?
A: We can help with social support, because friends tend to diminish the burden of caregiving.
Q: How can caregivers help themselves?
A: Reach out and make sure you get the information you need. Get a support group, ask for help and get help. There are a lot of resources out there.
Q: Reaching out isn't something Minnesotans easily do. We tend to close ranks.
A: That certainly happens around dementia because there's a stigma around it. Anything with cognitive decline and mental health issues is often hidden, in part because people don't like to look weak.
Cancer is pretty much out there. People talk about it. Social media has helped open that world. People are more out there and more willing to talk about their illnesses and their journeys.
Q: What can older adults do to help potential caregivers?
A: Being prepared will help a lot. Making sure that you've taken care of the legal aspects — the power of attorney, the advanced care plan. Having these things in place makes it easier down the road.
We are all going to be on this journey at some point.
Connie Nelson • 612-673-7087 • @StribCNelson