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As America Ages, Part Two: Boomers caring for parents are more prone to health issues

Diana Keys leads a step and strengthen class July 12 at the Kishwaukee Family YMCA 
in Sycamore. Keys, a baby boomer, has been a fitness instructor for more than 30 
years. (Rob Winner –
Diana Keys leads a step and strengthen class July 12 at the Kishwaukee Family YMCA in Sycamore. Keys, a baby boomer, has been a fitness instructor for more than 30 years. (Rob Winner –

Judy Bryant’s mother didn’t want to go into a nursing home.

So the 63-year-old Sycamore resident took her mother into her own home when she developed health issues. At the time, Bryant was taking care of her mother and the children in the home day care service she operates.

“She didn’t want to go into a home, so I stepped up,” Bryant said.

Some baby boomers are finding themselves in a triple whammy. While still supporting their children, their personal health is demanding more of their time as they age while many also are caring for their parents.

“You have a population that they themselves have some health care issues or a serious illness,” said Nancy Nelson, the senior manager of advocacy and community outreach for AARP Illinois. “But at the same time, they’re dealing with their parents or in-laws who have health care issues that might be more severe.”

Caregiving, but for whom?

According to a 2011 study sponsored by MetLife, nearly 10 million American adults older than 50 were caring for their parents in 2008. The study found that being the main caregiver in a family has multiple impacts on adults.

“Adult children 50-plus who work and provide care to a parent are more likely to have fair or poor health than those who do not provide care to their parents,” the study said.

The average caregiver is a white woman who works while taking care of a parent. The study found her means of caregiving was split between providing financial assistance – giving the parent-in-need at least $500 in the past two years – and caregiving tasks such as dressing, feeding, transportation or financial management.

Nelson estimated that two-thirds of U.S. families are involved in some kind of caregiving.

Bryant fits the profile of the average caregiver. Her siblings would take over for caring for their mother whenever Bryant couldn’t. She described the process as being “nuts.”

“It was very busy,” Bryant said. “We had children to deal with, and I had my elderly mother. But she loved having kids around. That would boost her up.”

However, the time spent providing care could serve as a useful prep for individuals who are getting older, Nelson said.

“That’s an interesting twist with the boomers,” Nelson said. “They’ll probably be more able to address their health issues and retirement issues ... because they’ve dealt with their parents.”

Four years after she moved in, her mother died in 2011, Bryant said. Right now, Bryant said she doesn’t have any health issues, and has been keeping up with regular check-ups.

Better than others

In two years, Bryant will qualify for Medicare, the federal entitlement program on which spending is projected to grow faster than the U.S. economy, according to a 2009 study from the Congressional Budgeting Office.

The office projected then that federal spending for Medicare and Medicaid would grow from about 5 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product to almost 10 percent by 2035, and then to 17 percent in 2080.

“That projection means that in 2080, without changes in policy, the federal government would be spending almost as much, as a share of the economy, on just its two major health care programs as it has spent on all of its programs and services in recent years,” the report reads.

Much of the federal spending on Medicare and Medicaid will be dedicated to fighting chronic diseases afflicting baby boomers. According to the American Hospital Association, six out of 10 baby boomers will be dealing with more than one chronic condition by 2030.

In that time, one of four baby boomers will have diabetes, half will have some kind of arthritis, and more than a third will be considered obese. Nelson said obesity will be a major health obstacle for boomers.

“They always think they’ll exercise more after they retire, but they really don’t,” Nelson said. “Sometimes,. it’s the health problems that keep them from exercising.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is also bleak when it comes to the health of America’s boomers. Fifty percent of Americans 55 to 64 years have high blood pressure, while another 40 percent have some form of cardiovascular disease, the CDC found. In addition, 14 percent of them are uninsured.

Sue Munz, the director of group exercise at the Kishwaukee YMCA, said she has been exercising her entire life. But she still worries about cholesterol, thinning bones and her genetic makeup.

“Some of my family members may have died too early because they didn’t take care of themselves,” Munz said.

Munz said it is hard to determine shared interests in regards to health. At 56 years old, Munz said she enjoys “a good hard workout” while older boomers might be interested in an arthritis class. She said the Kishwaukee Family YMCA has many different exercise classes available for many kinds of age groups.

Regardless of the activity level desired by boomers, Munz thinks everyone in the age group shares a common interest – maintaining their independence so they can do the things they want to do.

“The thought of losing my independence, and being put into a nursing home, terrifies people in this age,” Munz said.

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