A caregiving army

Minnesota’s many family caregivers still work for free, but a new law may help them cope

Every year in Minnesota nearly $8 billion in health care costs go unpaid.

If the state footed the bill, it would mean bankruptcy. If the workers walked off the job, nursing homes would be overrun.

So how is it that our state budget survives and seniors continue to live independently in their communities?

Unpaid family caregivers.

Nearly 600,000 Minnesotans are providing care for adult parents, spouses or family members. The dollar cost of that care is $7.8 billion annually in Minnesota alone — and more than $300 billion nationwide. The actual impact in invaluable.

Most Minnesotans say they want to live in the communities they’ve spent their lives in.

However, without family caregivers, this simply can’t be done.

The CARE Act

The good news is this: On Jan. 1, a new Minnesota law took effect to make life a little bit easier for caregivers. (At least 33 states have passed similar legislation.)

The CARE (Caregiver Advise, Record, Enable) Act is a new law designed to help family caregivers when their loved ones go into the hospital — and then must make the crucial move of transitioning home.

Any caregiver will tell you that taking a loved one to the hospital can be a terrifying experience. It’s stressful, emotional and confusing.

But bringing a loved one home can be just as bad.

All too often, hospital discharges happen suddenly and without enough time or attention given to adequately training the caregiver.

This added stress — and the fact that the caregivers don’t always understand what they’re supposed to do and how to do it — can ultimately lead to a return trip to the hospital.

Three key things

The CARE Act was designed to address this problem in three ways:

Upon entering the hospital, a patient has the opportunity to designate a family caregiver in their medical record. That caregiver is then granted access to all communication between the health care providers and the patient and is able to ask questions.

The designated family caregiver must be notified before the patient is discharged to another facility or back home so appropriate steps can be taken to ensure a safe transition.

The caregiver must be given a written description of — and instruction on — the medical tasks her or she will  need to perform.

This might seem like common sense — and it is — but these steps must be spelled out in law because family caregivers are left out of the loop far too often.

What they’re up against

Caregivers today are performing more complex tasks than ever before. They’re giving injections, treating wounds and managing medications.

Tasks that used to be provided by professional health care staff now fall to unpaid — and often untrained — family members.

As our state ages, we want — and need — as many Minnesotans as possible to stay in their communities.

To do so, however, we must adequately equip and empower the army of family caregivers that will be necessary to make that happen.

After all, caregivers aren’t professionals. They’re not nurses or social workers. They don’t know how to navigate the long-term care system, or choose the best Medicare plan or understand how Medication A could react to Medication B.

But they’re asked to do all of these things on a daily basis and they do so because of a deep sense of love and obligation.

As a state, Minnesota must do more to make caregivers’ lives a little easier.

Without this army of family caregivers, hundreds of thousands of Minnesota seniors wouldn’t be able to live independently — and the costs of paying for that care would cripple our state.

The CARE Act is an important first step.

Will Phillips is the state director of AARP Minnesota, which is dedicated to helping ages 50 and older connect with the resources and tools they need to plan for a sound financial future and navigate life’s pressures as they age.