THE BLOG

The Hidden Lives of Moms as Caregivers

05/12/2015 04:29 pm ET | Updated May 12, 2016

We don't often realize all that the mothers in our lives do for us. We notice the small things -- offering a kind word, preparing meals, giving advice -- and the big things, like coming to graduation or helping with new babies in the family. What we don't notice is how often women take on more than the average responsibilities of motherhood.

This week is National's Women Health Week and it makes sense to talk about women's health and motherhood as intertwined across all stages of life. Many women who are mothers take on additional caregiving for loved ones with disabilities or long-term care needs, beyond the work that women do to raise children under the age of 18.

You may call them "Mom," but those in the aging, disability, and long-term care world often call them "family caregivers." This may include a young mother who is caring for a child with special needs. Or a Baby Boomer raising teenagers, supporting her husband, and caring for parents in their 90s (as my sister does). Many young women are also caregivers for wounded service members (in many cases, their spouse) who are returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, in addition to raising young children. These mothers often juggle about twenty hours of additional work each week in helping their disabled or frail loved ones eat, dress, bathe, or manage daily activities, on top of other responsibilities like working, household chores, and even self-care.

New mothers and aging mothers alike should think about how these responsibilities will impact their health and their ability to pay for healthcare services during their own retirement. On average, caregivers of persons with Alzheimer's or dementia tend to be women. Many of these caregivers report "Fair" or "Poor" health and increased use of healthcare services as their loved one's illness gets worse. This means that family caregivers themselves need attention from doctors, nurses, and the healthcare team.

Women face challenges, too, in preparing for their own healthcare needs as they age. The CDC reports that the average life expectancy for women is 81, nearly four years more than that of men. Many women outlive their husbands. Some even outlive their retirement. Older, single women face significant challenges in managing their own long-term care needs, which often fall outside of benefits from government programs like Medicare. This challenge in preparing for the future is present in the workplace as well. We know that women at work face "double jeopardy" when they take on caregiving responsibilities. Those caring for aging parents tend to lose an average of $ 324,044 in wages and Social Security benefits due to time lost in the workplace because of caregiving.

The good news is that women don't have to be alone in the caregiving journey. Men are increasingly taking on caregiving responsibilities. Workplaces and employers are becoming aware of the needs of caregivers, including employee benefits such as flexible time and paid family and medical leave. There are a growing number of caregiver support groups and coalitions that provide services to family caregivers and help caregivers manage these transitions in their life.

On a personal level, you have an opportunity to support the women and mothers in your life who have taken on a caregiving role. Help them find the supports and resources that they need to stay healthy and happy (a good starting point is the Eldercare Locator or your local Aging and Disability Resource Center). Make sure they are connected with healthcare resources, such as health insurance. Offer to shoulder some of the caregiving responsibilities to allow them time to take a break or handle other responsibilities. And as you would on Mother's Day, appreciate and celebrate your caregiver's invaluable contribution to your family.