May is Older Americans Month, a time to honor and show appreciation for the older adults in our lives and our communities. But it’s also a time to reflect on their needs and the needs of their caregivers. Older adults — both those still in the workforce and those cared for by working adult children or professional caregivers — would benefit greatly from family friendly policies that honor workers’ commitments at home and on the job. Paid sick days and paid family and medical leave insurance are chief among these policies.
An increasing number of older adults are working well past traditional retirement age. Today, about 30 percent of adults over age 65 are employed. The economy and deflated retirement savings have forced many to stay in the workforce. Yet our workplace policies have not adapted. Older adults are more likely than others to suffer from health conditions, including chronic conditions that require regular care, but many older workers don’t have access to paid sick days or paid leave, which would allow them to take the time they need to protect their health without risking their income. It’s a losing situation for older adults and the employers who depend on them.
To make matters worse, our workplace policies also don’t reflect the increasing number of workers who are serving as family caregivers to older adults. There are at least 43.5 million caregivers of adults who are over 50 in the United States. And most of them have paying jobs in addition to their caregiving responsibilities. These caregivers need access to workplace supports like paid sick days that allow them to care for their own health and the health of their loved ones without risking their jobs. They also need access to paid family leave insurance so they are able to care for seriously ill parents or spouses without jeopardizing their financial stability.
But family caregivers aren’t the only ones providing the care our nation’s older adults need. Professional caregivers, or direct care workers, often provide 24/7 care to our loved ones, but they face poor working conditions, few workplace protections and low wages. They tend to our ill and aging population, too often without paid sick days to care for their own health. To meet the demands of an aging population, we need a caregiver workforce that is better paid, better respected and better trained. Direct care workers need paid sick days and family and medical leave insurance so they can take care of themselves and their own families.
The population of older adults in the United States is expected to swell to 20 percent of the population, or 72 million people, by 2030 — making policies like paid sick days and paid family and medical leave insurance more important and urgent than ever before. Older adults and those who care for them will face ever-growing challenges unless our public policies are updated to reflect demographic realities.
To be a nation that truly honors older Americans and those who care for them, we need a new commitment to family friendly policies that support workers, caregivers and individuals who need care. As Older Americans Month draws to a close, let’s remind members of Congress and lawmakers at all levels that passing paid sick days and paid leave standards are increasingly important steps in giving the older adults in our lives the support they need and deserve. The time is now.