In this Aug. 30, 2013 photo, Pauline King cares for her husband Jerry King at their home in Anna, Ill. Jerry was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in 1978. He can no longer go to the bathroom, bathe or dress himself without assistance from Pauline. You promise in sickness and in health, but a new poll shows becoming a caregiver to a frail spouse causes more stress than having to care for Mom, Dad or even the in-laws. Americans count on their families to care for them as they get older, with good reason: Half of people 40 and over already have been caregivers to relatives or friends, the poll found. (AP Photo/Stephen Lance Dennee)
Updated: June 23, 2014 3:26PM
WASHINGTON — More Americans may wind up helping Mom as she gets older, but a new poll shows the most stressful kind of caregiving is for a frail spouse.
The population is rapidly aging, but people aren’t doing much to get ready even though government figures show nearly 7 in 10 Americans will need long-term care at some point after they reach age 65.
In fact, people 40 and over are more likely to discuss their funeral plans than their preferences for assistance with day-to-day living as they get older, according to the poll by the AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. Five findings from the poll:
Effect on families
Half of people 40 and older already have been caregivers to relatives or friends. Six in 10 have provided care to a parent, mostly a mother, while 14 percent have cared for a spouse or partner.
Overwhelmingly, caregivers called it a positive experience. But it’s also incredibly difficult, especially for spouses. While 7 in 10 who cared for a spouse said their relationship grew stronger as a result, nearly two-thirds said it caused stress in their family compared with about half among those who cared for a parent.
It’s not just an emotional challenge but a physical one: The average age of spouse caregivers was 67, compared to 58 for people who’ve cared for a parent.
Virginia Brumley, 79, said caring for her husband Jim for nearly five years as he suffered from dementia strengthened their bond. But eventually he needed a nursing home because “he was too big for me. He was as helpless as a baby,” she said.
A third of Americans in this age group are deeply concerned they won’t plan enough for the care they’ll need in their senior years, and that they’ll burden their families.
Yet two-thirds say they’ve done little or no planning. About 32 percent say they’ve set aside money to pay for ongoing living assistance; 28 percent have modified their home to make it easier to live in when they’re older.
In contrast, two-thirds have disclosed their funeral plans.
Becoming a caregiver
Three in 10 Americans 40 and older think it’s very likely that an older relative or friend will need care within the next five years.
Just 30 percent who expect to provide that care feel very prepared for the job, while half say they’re somewhat prepared. But only 40 percent have discussed their loved one’s preferences for that assistance or where they want to live. Women are more likely than men to have had those tough conversations.
What does it cost?
Some 53 percent of people underestimate the monthly cost of a nursing home, about $6,900. Another third underestimate the cost of assisted living, about $3,400. One in 5 wrongly thought a home health aide costs less than $1,000 a month.
Contrary to popular belief, Medicare doesn’t pay for the most common long-term care. But nearly 6 in 10 Americans 40 and older support some type of government-administered long-term care insurance program, a 7 point increase from last year’s AP survey.
What else might help?
More than three-fourths of this age group favor tax breaks to encourage saving for long-term care or for purchasing long-term care insurance. Only a third favor a requirement to purchase such coverage. Some 8 in 10 want more access to community services that help the elderly live independently.
More than 70 percent support respite care programs for family caregivers and letting people take time off work or adjust their schedules to accommodate caregiving.
The AP-NORC Center survey was conducted by telephone March 13 to April 23 among a random national sample of 1,419 adults age 40 or older, with funding from the SCAN Foundation. Results have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.6 percentage points.