Cultural traditions affect care for elders

Like a growing number of baby boomers, Janet Lane carries two titles, one corporate, the other personal. By day, she is director of communications at AARP in Washington. After hours, she is caregiver to her parents, a role that has increasingly occupied her time for two years.

Ms. Lane, a single divorced woman with no children and no siblings, is also an African-American. That puts her among the racial and ethnic groups included in a fascinating study AARP is releasing today on caregiving.

Called "In the Middle: A Report of Multicultural Boomers Coping with Family and Aging Issues," the study is the first of its kind to document the attitudes and behavior of caregivers from the perspective of whites, blacks, Hispanics, and Asians. Some are sandwiched between dependent children and older family members. Others also care for nonrelatives.

The good news is that although many baby boomers find themselves squeezed by their multiple responsibilities, a majority say they are coping.

Yet a telephone survey of more than 2,300 Americans between the ages of 45 and 55 shows that nearly one-third - particularly Asians, Hispanics, and African-Americans - feel heavily burdened, especially those with low incomes.

Although Asian and Hispanic families provide more personal care and financial support than other groups, almost three-quarters of Asians express guilt that they cannot do more. Two-thirds of Hispanics feel guilty, as do 54 percent of African-Americans. Non-Hispanic whites feel the least guilt - 44 percent - and express the most optimism.

"Latinos believe it's their personal responsibility to care for their parents, and that it should be done in the home," says Lisa Navarrete, a spokeswoman for the National Council of LaRaza, a Hispanic advocacy group in Washington.

About 40 percent of Latinos contribute financially to help older family members, compared to 27 percent of the general public, Ms. Navarrete says. Yet Latinos have the lowest median family income. "If they're sacrificing now for their parents, that's having an effect on their own retirement plans and opportunities."

In an encouraging finding, the study reports that nearly two-thirds of caregivers turn to faith and prayer for support. Forty-two percent say their church, synagogue, temple, or other religious organization has been helpful.

"Given that baby boomers have a reputation for being materialistic, the fact that so many of them rely on their faith and spirituality in coping with the pressures of having to care for two generations is an aspect I found striking in the report," Navarrete says.

What practical steps and policy changes could help to ease the responsibility caregivers now shoulder?

Employers, AARP says, need to provide more workplace flexibility to help workers meet caregiving demands. Only 8 percent of respondents turned to employers for help. "There's a great hesitancy, because it impacts a career," Lane says. She herself found it necessary to change jobs within her organization to gain more flexibility.

AARP also calls for strengthening Social Security and Medicare. A caregiver tax credit, Lane notes, would reinforce financial security.

In addition, the group suggests that caregiver programs need to provide multilingual staff and develop programs that incorporate ethnic cultural traditions.

"Parents are living longer and boomers are living longer," Lane says. "We're going to see a tidal wave of need for this issue." Noting that "family care is where child care was 20 years ago," she adds, "We need to pay more attention to it."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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