We Must Empower the Most Important Workforce in America: Family Caregivers

Thomas P. Riley is President and Chief Executive Officer of Seniorlink

Today is the first day of summer, the longest day of the year for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere. It’s also "The Longest Day" – a day when the Alzheimer’s Association hosts a global fundraiser based on team activities, with funds going to care, support, research, awareness and advocacy for the disease. That makes it a particularly good time to bring up a topic that’s dear to us here at Seniorlink: family caregivers, especially those caring for loved ones with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.

To that end, I’d like to call attention to an excellent article by Jennifer Levitz published in The Wall Street Journal earlier this month, titled Family Caregivers Become More Crucial as Elderly Population Grows.

I appreciated the candor and honesty of the stories shared in the article, as greater recognition of family caregivers is far overdue. Without them serving as the foundation of our healthcare ecosystem, we would far exceed the $3 trillion we already spend annually on healthcare. As we focus on new policies designed to contain costs and improve outcomes, we must consider family caregivers to be the fulcrum to initiate change. For millions of Americans, the likelihood of aging with dignity and at an affordable cost is directly tied to how much we respect and empower family caregivers. 

The need to support and empower caregivers seems particularly pressing in light of a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which revealed that in 2015 the death rate among all Americans rose for the first time in a decade. Preliminary analysis points to a marked increase in Alzheimer’s-related deaths as a significant contributor to this troubling trend.

A Framework for Caregivers 

Those family caregivers who support loved ones with life-altering disease like Alzheimer’s, enabling them to remain at home, are remarkable. It is truly inspiring to see what caregivers can accomplish: improving quality of life for their loved ones while helping to manage health care outcomes and costs. Now more than ever, we must innovate to provide these trusted family members with more consistent support and targeted resources.

Over the past couple of years, Seniorlink has been working with Northeastern University to study how our caregivers support their loved ones in the community.  The result of this work has been the creation of an innovative framework called VOICE (Vital Outcomes Inspired by Caregiver Engagement) that highlights important strategies deployed by caregivers dealing with this dreaded disease. VOICE is an evidence-informed, competency-based training program for promoting the prevention and management of behavioral symptoms of dementia for family caregivers. Implementation of this framework has led to strategies and tools designed to promote engagement and reduce caregiver stress, even as we improve satisfaction and outcomes.      

According to the Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention, Alzheimer’s disease is now the sixth leading cause of death in America. It is essential that VOICE and programs like it are implemented across the country, to assist the silent army of family caregivers who are looking for resources every day to help them provide the best possible care for their loved ones. We encourage a collective commitment to supporting those who step up to care for family.