BETH MESSERSMITH: At some point everyone will need care, or time to care

Posted December 23, 2017 5:00 a.m. EST
Updated December 23, 2017 6:30 a.m. EST

Editor's note: Beth Messersmith is the North Carolina Campaign Director for MomsRising.

You may have heard the statistic that every eight minutes, someone in America turns 65—adding up to 10,000 per day. It’s true that as Baby Boomers enter their golden years, our aging population booms with them. In North Carolina, a retirement surge is underway as 2.4 million Baby Boomers transition into the next phase of their lives.

With the number of Americans age 65 and older projected to jump dramatically, there are obvious implications for Social Security, Medicare and other programs seniors rely on.

However, our leaders often ignore a less visible, but pressing need aging Americans face: caregiving. This usually falls to family and loved ones. About 44 million Americans provide care each year for adult family members and friends, often on top of work and other family obligations.

That’s why MomsRising, our partners, and people in North Carolina and around the country are coming together to fight for paid family and medical leave. The reality is that caregiving and the need for paid leave are multigenerational issues that affect us all. Everyone needs paid leave at some point—whether to care for yourself or your family—and most Americans will become caregivers in their lives.

Like so many others, I’ve seen this firsthand. When my son was born two and half months prematurely, it was critical that I could be by his side in the NICU and once he came home to bond and ensure he got a healthy start in life. Sadly, I was one of the only parents in the nursery most days until parents rushed in after work because they either lacked paid leave or had such a limited amount they had to choose between being with their baby in the hospital or when they finally came home.

But caregiving responsibilities aren’t limited to our children. Like so many Americans, I am in the “sandwich generation”—caught between caring for my kids and my mother, who is currently battling cancer. Between her doctor’s appointments and challenges lining up childcare for my kids, I often need to take time off to care for my family. Luckily, my employer happens to advocate for paid leave for all, and they practice what they preach. Otherwise, I don’t know if I could manage to be a good daughter and a good parent all at the same time.

I’m not alone in this. A 2013 Pew study revealed that nearly half of adults in their 40s and 50s have a parent age 65 or older and are either raising a young child or financially supporting a grown child. About one-in-seven middle-aged adults is providing financial support to both an aging parent and a child.

Many people, especially women, are even leaving the workforce sooner than they’d like to take care of aging parents. Even if they don’t leave their job, they can spend up to 30 hours a week providing care.

Even though many older Americans are in good shape, life constantly presents new challenges like unexpected medical needs or a sick partner. We should be able to care for our families without risking financial chaos.

More and more people recognize this, and policymakers are starting to take note. This summer Winston-Salem joined ten other local governments in voting to provide their employees at least six weeks of paid parental leave to welcome a new child while Mecklenburg County is leading the way in providing county employees with up to six weeks paid family and medical leave. Companies are also following the trend and offering competitive paid leave packages, understanding it boosts retention rates and improves their bottom line. Charlotte-based Bank of America offers employees as many as four months of paid leave.

While this is progress, our state lawmakers must go further. Too many North Carolinians are still left making the impossible choice between taking care of their families and the job that puts food on the table.

Paid leave is not just for new parents or women. Our aging population means more and more Americans will need to take time off to care for their parents, their partners, or other loved ones, and we need paid leave to be able to do that. Lawmakers in North Carolina should prioritize paid family and medical leave for all—it’s not only the right thing to do, it will make our families and communities stronger.

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