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Overview

Americans are living longer. At the turn of the 20th century, the average life expectancy was only 50 years. Today, the average life expectancy is near 80 for men and the mid-80s for women. This means that more people will have older relatives and will experience the stresses and rewards of providing care for them. And because many people are starting their families later in life, they may be caring for young children and aging parents at the same time.

Families are the primary source of assistance for older people who are unable to meet all of their own needs. Family caregivers, the majority of whom are women, provide 80 to 90 percent of the care that older relatives receive.

But today's families have changed significantly from decades ago. Families now are more likely to be headed by dual-earner married couples or by a single parent who works. With both women and men in the paid labor force, a growing proportion of families have no adult at home to care for children or to manage or provide care for elderly relatives. Instead, they rely on systems of care that can be costly, undependable, incompatible with hours of work, or in short supply. Today's families are struggling to meet multiple responsibilities.

For those family members who work, care for older relatives can be particularly difficult. According to one study, caregivers spend an average of four hours per day on caregiving tasks in addition to the eight hours they've already worked.

Some workers find they have to take vacation and/or sick leave to deal with crises, spend hours on the phone during the workday to find resources, and even quit their jobs because they don't have the flexibility needed to handle the responsibilities of both work and caregiving. The situation is particularly stressful for adult children who live far away from their parents or who are caring for their own children as well.

How can you prepare for your role as caregiver? What kinds of community services are available? What programs in your workplace provide assistance? And, how can your union help? Read ahead for answers to these questions.