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What about a Caregivers Corps to help neighbors to age in place

by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Life section of the Annapolis Capital, Sunday March 24, 2013

Unabridged from my Bonus Years column in the Lifestyle section of The Sunday Capital, Annapolis, Maryland

Remember the old cartoon showing the engineer proudly holding his diploma and flanked by his parents on graduation day?  The caption says, “Five years ago I couldn’t spell engineer, but now I are one.”

Well that same kind of thing happened to Janice Lynch Schuster, an Annapolitan writer who has spent nearly twenty years among experts on aging and end-of-life care.  As the senior writer for the Center for Elder Care and Advanced Illness at Altarum Institute, she   works with Dr. Joanne Lynn, a respected geriatrician, early hospice physician, and a leader in improving care for frail elders. Lynch Schuster is also a co-author of the acclaimed “Handbook for Mortals: Guidance for People Facing Serious Illness,” which won the 2012 book award from the American Medical Writers Association.

But it is one thing to think, talk and write about later-life.  It is another to live it.  Living it, as Janice is now beginning to do, is something else altogether. At 50, she is a card-carrying member of AARP, whose discounts she proudly claims whenever she can.

Now she is not just a student of later-life; she is a participant-observer who has already embarked on a journey that will take her through several stages of living, working, parenting, caregiving, learning, suffering, celebrating and someday, perhaps, retiring and rebooting that are part of the aging experience for most people.

Janice and her husband, Erik, have six children, five just launching into adulthood, and one on the brink of middle school.  Janice’s parents live nearby and, when occasional health challenges strike, she and her three siblings pitch in to provide needed care.  Thus, in addition to studying and writing about the caregiving needs of aging families, Janice is directly affected by new pressures on American family life, inter-generation pressures that did not exist when life expectancy was 61 years (when Social Security was established in 1935) rather than the 78 years and climbing that we have today.  Result: Janice lives a reality that now faces millions of aging boomers: Figuring out how to care for aging parents, first, and then for themselves as they all grow older together.

Armed with first-hand experience, Janice and her colleagues work hard to encourage later-life Americans to prepare for the future – something that is never easy to do.

But a recent Twitter chat at #eldercare led to an epiphany. The conversation turned to what can the government do to help older adults, and to make life better and easier for them and their caregivers. Someone suggested a Peace Corps for older adults—and Janice’s mind lit up

What about a Caregiver Corps approach to provide a channel for young and old alike to commit part of their life to elder care in local communities?  Enthused, she immediately launched a petition on We the People, a White House web site where citizens can create petitions to promote their ideas. There, she explained, the Caregiver Corps would recruit high school and college graduates, as well as retirees eager to do something meaningful in their own communities.

The mission: To support the efforts of community-based organizations nationwide that serve older adults, from Meals on Wheels to adult day care, and everything in between. Corps volunteers could receive training in eldercare skills, from leading social activities and providing companionship to assisting with activities of daily living (e.g., transportation, home maintenance, etc.) and giving respite care, providing periodic relief to family and friends who need a break from caring for elder family members.   In addition, the Corps could help honor and promote caregivers as the heroes they are, just like we already view firefighters and other first responders.

According to the national Family Caregiver Alliance, more than 44 million Americans provide 37 billion hours of unpaid, “informal” care each year for adult family members and friends with chronic illnesses or conditions that prevent them from handling daily activities such as bathing, managing medications or preparing meals on their own. Family caregivers, particularly women, provide over 75 percent of caregiving support in the US – unpaid contributions that would cost several hundred billion if replaced with fully paid services.

In order to expand this pool of volunteer caregivers, the Corps would, like the Peace Corps, provide inducements to volunteer.  Examples include everything from partial forgiveness of student loans to small stipends or transportation reimbursements for older adult volunteers.

Janice says, “I’ve always been a writer.  I’ve never done anything like this before.  But I am convinced the benefits would be huge – both for individuals and for the community.  First, the expanded pool of Corps volunteers could be channeled into existing public and private institutions that serve the large and growing aging-in-place population – groups like Partners in Care here in Anne Arundel County.  Second, by supporting the aging-in-place movement, the Corps would offer a more cost-effective way to provide care to frail or disabled older adults, reducing the financial costs to Medicare or Medicaid.”

So writer and author Janice Lynch Schuster has become an activist of sorts.  Her We the People petition for the Corps garnered 150 signatures in just a few days, the number required to have the idea publicly listed on the White House web site. You can now see it—and sign it – at http://wh.gov/GURc. 

In just three days on the public site, the petition attracted nearly 400 signatures, representing citizens from 43 states and the District. If she can get a total of 100,000 signatures by April 5, 2013, the proposal will be presented to the President of the US.

Just 99,600 to go, and only two weeks to get them! But the process is allowing Lynch Schuster to start conversations with many groups and individuals around the country who are enthusiastic about improving eldercare. They have also launched a Facebook Caregiving Corps page, and tweet about it at #carecorps.

I don’t know if she will make it, but this initiative by a private citizen to unleash the power of volunteerism to deal with the challenges of a rapidly aging society represents the best of America.

As Janice says, “There is not enough money in the world to provide professionalized institutional care to America’s aging population.  Whether it is a Caregivers Corps or some other social innovation, it is for sure that we must deal with these challenges by unleashing and refocusing the power of the voluntary sector.”

If you’d like to learn more or get involved, email her at JLSchuster827@gmail.com

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