Imagine the joy of welcoming home a husband from his second military deployment to Iraq, followed by the anxiety of watching him develop seizures and other signs of post-traumatic stress and a traumatic brain injury.

Or imagine a middle-of-the-night phone call letting you know that your mother has just had a devastating stroke.

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Every day, events such as these catapult loved ones into a daunting, demanding new role—that of family caregiver. The new role falls to people across the lifespan: spouses, parents, children, siblings, friends, neighbors, and more. It affects just about everyone.  Few family caregivers come to the job with either training or experience. They find themselves scrambling for information, and most often they wind up learning by doing, with all the stress and uncertainty that entails.

Family caregivers are the backbone of services and supports in this country – the first line of assistance helping older adults, veterans, and people with disabilities to live independently in their homes and communities where they want to be. 

These unsung heroes perform a stunning array of functions: wound care; navigating byzantine legal, medical, and financial matters; providing emotional and mental health support; helping with daily tasks such as bathing, hygiene, meal preparation and managing medications.

The 5.5 million military and veteran caregivers, including those caring for veterans from the most recent conflicts abroad, are confronted with an increasing number of devastating wounds, illnesses, and disabling injuries—visible and invisible.

Nationally, about 40 million family caregivers provide unpaid care valued at $470 billion annually. To put this in perspective: the estimated economic value of this uncompensated care surpassed total Medicaid spending ($449 billion) in 2013, and nearly equaled the sales ($469 billion) of the four largest U.S. tech companies combined (Apple, Hewlett Packard, IBM, and Microsoft) in 2013-2014.

Perhaps more important, family caregivers also help delay or prevent more costly institutional care and unnecessary hospitalizations, saving taxpayer dollars.

This comes at a high cost to family caregivers. They frequently have to juggle their own careers and, often, child-rearing, with their caregiving responsibilities. Many times, they put their own pursuits and well-being on hold, while taking on the physical, emotional, and financial challenges of their caregiving roles. It takes a toll.

We find it shocking that, although family caregivers’ responsibilities are many, and the service they perform so vital, no national strategy for supporting them exists. After all, most of us are, have been, or will be, a family caregiver, or will need help in the future to live independently.

Family caregivers will only face greater strains in the future, as we continue to live longer, but with smaller families. The ratio of potential family caregivers to the growing number of older people has already begun a steep decline. In 2010, there were 7.2 potential family caregivers for every person age 80 and older. By 2030, that ratio will fall sharply to 4 to 1, and to 3 to 1 in 2050.  

How can we make their big responsibilities a little bit easier? As caregivers ourselves, we know how valuable guidance, information/direction—even a helping hand—can be when the challenges of caring for a loved one become overwhelming.

Right now, the U.S. Congress has a golden opportunity to take an important step, with the bipartisan RAISE (Recognize, Assist, Include, Support, and Engage) Family Caregivers Act, legislation that would require the development of a national strategy to support family caregivers.

The strategy would identify specific actions that communities, providers, government, employers, and others can take to recognize and support family caregivers. The bill would help share evidence-based and promising practices and maximize the effectiveness of existing programs to support family caregivers. The Senate has already passed the legislation unanimously and it awaits consideration by the Education and the Workforce Committee in the House.

At AARP and the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, we believe that supporting family caregivers is a top priority for all of us. Each family caregiver’s situation is unique, but every caregiver faces the same quandaries from the earliest moments of being thrust into the role: What do I do now? Where do I start? Who’s going to help me? 

Let’s take a commonsense step to help them find the answers. It’s time for a national strategy to recognize, assist, include, support and engage the nation’s family caregivers. It’s time to pass the RAISE Family Caregivers Act.

Jo Ann Jenkins is Chief Executive Officer of AARP, the nation’s largest membership organization, with nearly 38 million members. Elizabeth Dole is Founder and President of The Elizabeth Dole Foundation, an organization that raises awareness and support for the nation’s 5.5 million military and veteran caregivers.


The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.