29% of people in the U.S. have served as unpaid family caregivers in the past year. That’s 66 million people, mostly female (66%), middle age (on average 48 years old), usually taking care of a relative (86%).

These sobering stats come out of Caregiving in the U.S. 2009, a study from the National Alliance for Caregiving in collaboration with AARP. The research, funded by the MetLife Foundation, follows up a similar study in 2004 and shows the proportion of Americans caregiving has substantially changed over the past five years.

But both caregivers of adults and those for whom they provide care are older than they were five years ago — a kind of aging-in-place of the caregiving. Among caregivers of adults, the average age increased from 46.4 to 49.2 years due to a decline among younger caregivers, and a growing shift of caregivers age 50-64.

At the same time, the percent of care recipients 75 and older increased from 43% to 51%. As a result, the share of recipients with Alzheimer’s or dementia as the main problem for care needs doubled, from 6% of the care group in 2004 to 12% of the population being cared for in 2009.

There’s also more intense use of medications among the aging population, with an increase in the use of meds from 85% in 2004 to 93% in 2009.

The report notes that 45% of caregivers have used at least one specified technology. Most commonly used technologies include electronic organizers or calendars and emergency response systems. Fewer caregivers use communication devices for clinical information (e.g., blood pressure and blood sugar), sensors for home monitoring, and websites.

Technologies are most utilized by caregivers caring for older relatives, those in higher-burden situations, and those caring for their loved ones for a longer time. Those caregivers who do not live with their cared-for loved one take greater use of technologies.

Health Populi’s Hot Points: Caregiving is one of the roles we take on as our parents age. If we are parents ourselves, we’re the caregivers that bridge the sandwich of generations, the filling between elders and youngers. Since 1 in 3 people in the U.S. is playing this role, it’s a huge burden and challenge not only for the individual caregiver, but for their families, employers, and public policy makers.

The challenge will persist and the burden will intensify as the population ages through the miracles of medicine. However, 24 hours in the day will not miraculously morph into 30, or 36. And cloning continues to be a pipedream for us mere mortals.

Enter technology, thanks to Intel, for example, and telecommunications, through growing remote telehealth services that are increasingly available. Technology will not be the big problem here: how to pay for it will, and that’s where health payment reform comes into play. When we fully fund the patient-centered medical home, we will begin to see funding go where it’s needed: to keep people safely, healthfully, aging at home, and to empower both the cared-for and the caregiver with information and user-friendly tools for self-care.

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