In an ill-attempt at humor, this week’s SNL portrayal of a 106-year-old man and his care-giving nurse showed a complete ignorance of the dire circumstances millions of families face as they deal with the challenge of offering compassionate care to the growing number of the old, old – those over 85 years of age.
In the skit “Theater Donor,” Felicity Jones (star of Rouge One) plays the hapless nurse who serves as the caregiver of a wheelchair-bound wealthy centenarian who has funded a new production at the local theater. As the play begins, he disrupts the actors as he complains that he can’t hear. As the show continues, a series of interruptions ensues. A computerized voice from the wheelchair signals that its time for him to be fed. So his nurse pulls out a large jar of a white substance that she smears on his face as he tries to keep her from getting it into his mouth. A few moments later a computerized voice calls out that it’s time to “disinfect” as lights and smoke explode from the back of the chair. When the voice calls out that it’s time to change his medical stockings, the man puts up a fight as he maneuvers his electric wheelchair off the stage. After that, I turned off the show, wondering why the writers thought this was okay.
SNL, which likes to portray itself as the moral conscience of American culture, got it all wrong this time. Perhaps they wanted to vent the frustrations of acting in front of a live audience and pulled up memories of some of the worst interruptions they had endured. Whatever the reason, like most people who do not have the responsibilities of caring for people who can’t take care of themselves, they just don’t understand the issues of pain, discouragement, and frustration caregiving family members experience on a daily basis.
Millions of today’s boomers (those born from 1946 to 1964) are finding themselves cast into the role of caregivers as their parents live into their eighties, nineties, and hundreds. Because of the increasingly high cost of retirement homes and rest homes, most people over the age of eighty-five do not have the financial resources to live in this kind of housing. Instead, their children are scrambling to figure out how to keep their jobs while taking care of mom or dad.
Even more concerning for boomers is the dawning realization and fear that if they make it past eighty-five years of age, there will twice as many people in this age range, and there will be greatly diminished resources to provide for their needs. Today there are over 44 million unpaid eldercare providers in the United States. Most of them are women who are proving care for parents and in-laws.
As people move into their eighties, their level of care changes. First, they need help as they stay in their own homes or apartments. The caregiver’s main function is to monitor them by keeping track of their food, making sure they get to doctor’s appointments, and providing transportation when the keys to the car are taken away.
The next stage is when parents move in to live with their children. At first, this is an easier compromise because the caregiver no longer has to travel to the parent’s residence. But as the years go, the adult children’s lifestyle undergoes dramatic change, especially when their parent needs more supervision and care.
It’s at this stage that paid direct caregivers are hired to give ongoing support so the son or daughter can return to work or have a break from the daily grind. Now we can begin to see the emerging crises in caregiving in its full force. By 2022, the number of direct-care workers will need to increase by 37 percent to more than 4.8 million workers, which is equal to the number of salespeople in retail and more than the 4.5 million who work as K-12 teachers. Because this type of care is one-to-one, the demands on the worker is high, while the pay is low. In short, as more people need one-to-one care, there are fewer qualified workers to fill the jobs.
When boomers begin reaching their eighties in 2026, the number of direct-care workers will need to dramatically increase to keep up with the demands of this growing population. This just touches the iceberg of issues the American culture will face as its population undergoes dramatic population growth in the next twenty years.
So rather than making fun of those who need help and those who care for them, SNL and its fans need to find compassion for those caught in this emerging crisis faced by millions of American families. For someday, most of them will find themselves needing help or caring for someone they love.
Craig Kennet Miller is the author of Boomer Spirituality: Seven Values for the Second Half of Life. Join him for a series of webinars on boomers that start on Tuesday, January 24.