Most Americans either have been or will be caregivers. However, we rarely recognize this because, “that’s just what families do.” Most families pitch in when loved ones need help after a hospital stay, to deal with chronic health conditions or increasingly because dementia makes it impossible for them to stay alone.

During November, National Family Caregivers Month, caregivers deserve recognition for the enormous contribution they make to family life. Called “an invisible army,” these selfless people give of their time, patience, skills and unconditional love to care for those who need help and support to get through the day.

Who’s a caregiver?

Who are these people? Caregivers are you and me, our neighbors, our co-workers and our family. About 60 percent of caregivers are women and 56 percent are still working full-time, often balancing the demands of young children and elderly parents. They work what’s been called the “36-hour day,” providing 37 billion hours of unpaid care each year.

Caregivers come in all sizes, ages and economic backgrounds. More than 42 million Americans, or 17 percent of the population, provide unpaid care to an ill or disabled adult. About 25 percent of all caregivers (10 million) are ages 18 to 34 and caring for adult family members. Half are younger than age 50. An additional 62 million Americans provide care at home at some time during the year, according to the AARP Resource Center. About a quarter of all caregivers have been at it for more than five years.

The value of their care is immeasurable. The AARP Public Policy Institute estimates the economic value of their caregiving to be $470 billion a year. Family caregivers are the most important source of support for older people who live with chronic conditions or are disabled.

President Obama’s proclamation of National Family Caregivers Month, 2015 says, in part, “For centuries, we have been driven by the belief that we all have certain obligations to one another.  Every day, caregivers across our country answer this call and lift up the lives of loved ones who need additional support … let us honor their contributions and pledge to continue working toward a future where all caregivers know the same support and understanding they show for those they look after.”

What do caregivers do?

Caregivers provide both skilled and unskilled nursing care and help with the activities of daily living such as dressing, bathing and eating. They accompany loved ones to doctors’ appointments or manage the unrelenting demands of dementia, retardation or chronic illness. An increasing number of caregivers must provide complex care (such as inserting catheters, giving injections or changing IV medication bags) because that’s the only way they can keep their loved one at home. Many have had to learn a wide range of complex medical skills as hospitals discharge patients quicker to cut costs.

Many provide care long-distance. Up to 70 percent of caregivers say they have significant depression. At least 40 percent say they’ve had no training for the tasks they’ve assumed. Only about half have any help from other family members.

Their quiet, consistent, altruistic contributions are often overlooked, without reward or recognition. Even close friends may not know the extent of their duties or the stress they feel. This noble work is rewarded only by the knowledge that their loved one could not survive, at least not survive living in the community or at home, without their help.

When does caregiving start?

How do you become a caregiver? Most people don’t label themselves as a caregiver, but the majority of Americans will provide care, at some point, to some friend of family member, during their lifetime. The slow progression into caregiving may start with helping mom balance her checkbook or changing a hard-to-reach lightbulb. As normal aging happens, the caregiver takes on more tasks and more complex activities of daily living. Caregiving can also happen suddenly, as a result of a major health crisis such as stroke or surgery after an accident.

How you can help

All too often, we don’t recognize our family, friends and co-workers as caregivers. Rarely do we acknowledge their invaluable contribution to our lives.

How can you honor and show appreciation for the caregivers in your family or neighborhood? The gift of time is probably the most valuable for caregivers. Donate your time so the caregiver can enjoy a break from caregiving, take time to visit the patient, prepare a meal or run errands.

AARP suggests these ways to help caregivers:

  • Cook a meal and deliver it to them
  • Offer to run errands – grocery shopping, pharmacy pick-up, holiday shopping
  • Sit with the patient while the caregiver gets a break
  • Buy some gift cards to their favorite restaurants
  • Drive them to a movie, restaurant or other event and pick up the tab
  • Decorate their house for the holidays
  • If the caregiver also has young children, take them to after-school events or out for a meal
  • Clean their house or pay for a cleaning service to do it
  • Get their lawn and garden ready for winter, rake leaves, clean up flowerbeds, clean gutters
  • Bring over some games or puzzles and snacks for a game night
  • Offer to find a caregivers’ support group, then drive him or her to the meetings or offer to stay with the patient so the caregiver may attend
  • Research adult day care programs in your town to help working caregivers who cannot leave their patient home alone

For more information visit:

  • aarp.org/caregiving to access AARP’s comprehensive Caregiving Resource Center
  • n4a.org to find your local Area Agency on Aging, which can help with respite care, entitlement programs, home health, caregiver training, home delivered meals and many other services and community resources
  • http://uamscaregiving.org/contact-us/  to get a list of locations where caregivers can take a free workshop that will help them be more effective caregivers, funded by the UAMS-Schmieding Home Caregiver Training Program
  • 800-677-1116 is ElderCare Locator, a free, government-sponsored service to help you find elder care (day care, legal help, housing, in-home services, etc.) anywhere in the United States
  • VA Caregiver Support Line toll free at 855-260-3274 or visit caregiver.va.gov/index.asp.  The VA operates the most comprehensive program for caregivers of veterans.