Ridenbaugh Press Boss Randy Stapilus is one of the best research journalists I’ve ever known. Bar none. He can plow though reams of arcane statistics, lengthy court decisions and political garbage to come up with the meat of the issue at hand. And he does it sober. That’s a real talent in too short supply in our media world these days. Me? Not even close.

Yet once in awhile, a pile of numbers comes along that no one can ignore. With a message too large to overlook. The latest to cross my desk: an AARP study of the contributions of caregivers and the cost – in billions of dollars – of the care they provide. Yes, billions. Many billions.

If you’ve ever been a caregiver on a full or part time basis, you were likely so focused on your responsibility that putting a dollar value on what you were doing just didn’t come to mind. It should. Because when you add it up, it equals the gross domestic product of some large countries.

Here is a direct quote from the AARP document. “In 2009, about 42.1 million family caregivers in the United States provided care to an adult with limitations in daily activities at any given point in time, and about 61.6 million provided care at some time during the year.”

“The estimated economic value of their unpaid contributions was approximately $450 billion in 2009, up from an estimated $375 billion in 2007.”
AARP used what seems a very conservative formula to come up with that estimate. Using census and other public data, AARP found 42.1 million caregivers, 18 years of age or older, providing an average of 18.4 hours of care per week to recipients, 18 or older, at an average rate of $11.16 per hour – if they had been paid.. With the exception of the hourly compensation, those are huge figures.

Here’s some context for the $450 billion: more than total federal and state Medicaid spending in 2009 which was $361 billion; as much as the total sales of the world’s largest companies including Wal-Mart of $408 billion in 2009 and the three largest auto companies; almost $1,500 for every person in the United States given a population of about 307 million; and about 3.2 percent of our gross national product.

Again, this is uncompensated care being given from one private person to another. While there were also billions in institutional costs such as nursing homes and assisted living facilities, this was ALL one-on one unpaid care for family members and friends.

So what are the Northwest states portions of caregiving? Idaho: 307,000 caregivers at any given time; 201 million hours of care with a value of $ 2 billion. Washington: 1.25 million caregivers with 817 million hours of care at a value of $10.6 billion. Oregon: 678 thousand caregivers with 443 million hours of care valued at $5.5 billion.

Again, huge numbers.

At some point in our lives, many of us will give full time care to a family member or friend. Or, we already have. It’s what we do. If that care goes on long enough, we all feel the strain and symptoms of depression from the continued responsibility. Yet, we don’t think of the dollar cost as the value of what we’re doing; only that it needs to be done and we hope someone would – or will – do the same for us. Again, it’s what we do.

While the AARP study will doubtless become important data in the files of health organizations, volunteer groups and assorted “bean counters” of the world, I choose to think of it as simply a statistical picture of a “value” on which most of us can place no value. The numbers are interesting but reveal very little about the real human cost.

That, caregivers carry in their hearts. That’s the real value.

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