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Why Providers Must Work More Closely with Alzheimer’s Caregivers

You wouldn’t think it would be easy to sweep $217.7 billion under the rug. It would be like hiding 46 percent of the net value of Walmart sales for 2013 or eight times the total revenue of McDonald’s that same year. Yet, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, that’s precisely the value of unpaid caregiving provided by family members and friends of adults with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia. In fact, these caregivers volunteer services that are nearly as much as the costs of direct medical and long-term care of dementia. As National Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Month kicks off, we have to ask, “Are healthcare providers missing out on an opportunity to provide culturally competent care—not just to dementia patients, but to the people who care for those patients?”

The Cost of Alzheimer’s and Other Forms of Dementia

Obviously, if unpaid caregivers went away tomorrow, the U.S. healthcare system would be hit with the enormous, costly burden of caring for Alzheimer’s patients. But the costs that impact the healthcare system go much deeper. While 65 percent of unpaid caregivers choose to provide care due to a desire to keep a loved one in the familiar comfort of home, their good intentions have unintended consequences.

Caring for a loved one is both physically and emotionally draining, and when that loved one is suffering from dementia, the stress is even higher. The statistics, says the Alzheimer’s Association, show just how significant a toll caregiving takes on family caregivers:

  • 40 percent suffer from depression, compared to only 5 to 17 percent of non-caregivers.
  • 38 percent rate the physical toll of caregiving as high or very high.
  • 74 percent admit they are “somewhat concerned” to “very concerned” about a decline in their own health.

They aren’t imagining it. The chronic stress of caregiving, particularly for a loved one with a progressive, degenerative disease like Alzheimer’s, was found to increase the likelihood of depression and anxiety, reduced immune function, slow wound healing, elevate blood pressure and lead to higher incidences of cardiovascular disease. The Alzheimer’s Association notes that nearly $9.7 billion in healthcare costs last year were a direct result of dementia caregiving

15.7 Million Reasons to Actively Engage Caregivers

When we talk about culturally competent care, we often focus on a demographic or socio-economic cohort. Family caregivers cut across a multitude of segments, but as of last year, they numbered at nearly 16 million individuals—certainly a significant segment by any standard, and share, to a great extent, common needs, experiences and behaviors. Yet, they are frequently overlooked by healthcare providers. This is bad business for two reasons:

  1. Family caregivers play an important role in the continuum of care.

The family caregiver is part of the healthcare team. You need to ensure that family caregivers have the support needed to provide appropriate care if you want to avoid rehospitalizations. The Pew Charitable Trusts notes that, last November, Oklahoma passed a law that requires hospitals to provide training to a designated family caregiver prior to releasing a patient, and 12 other states have since followed suit. Even more have similar legislation pending. This is one way to pave the way to greater support and engagement for caregivers—and it’s important because of reason number 2.

  1. Family caregivers will become the costly patients of tomorrow.

    As the statistics indicate, family caregivers are more likely to experience declining physical and emotional health precisely because they under stress caring for a loved one. Right now, if you google dementia care, you find plenty of advice from sources like the Alzheimer’s Association or What’s missing from the search results are support tools accessed through healthcare providers. Hospitals and physicians are surely missing the boat by not actively engaging millions of family caregivers who face higher than average chronic health risks.

With outreach campaigns to family caregivers, hospitals put culturally competent care on the front lines to positively impact health outcomes, not just for patients, but for caregivers as well. Have you started any support programs for caregivers at your organization?

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