By Charlene Hunter James
National attention to family caregiver challenges is on the rise. In Texas, about 3.3 million people perform this tough but rewarding labor of love by helping their parents, spouses and other family members remain at home and in their community environment.

Taking care of one’s family members is certainly not something new in the African American community, as we have long assumed this role is just “something we do.” What is different now are the changing community dynamics which create greater challenges in our caregiving responsibilities.

As we celebrate Black History Month, we at AARP pay a special tribute to the number of African American caregivers in our community, as well as those nationwide.

According to the National Alliance for Caregiving and the AARP Public Policy Institute, the typical African American caregiver is a 44-year old single woman, currently caring for one adult ̶ a 66-year-old female relative who needs care because of a long-term physical condition. She spends 27 hours per week providing care ̶ from bathing, running errands and managing finances, to helping with sometimes complex medical or nursing tasks. She is the sole, unpaid care provider for her loved one and does not have the assistance of paid help. She’s also employed, working 33 hours each week for an income of $37,000.

This is just a typical profile, but there are so many others with which I am well aware, including my own responsibilities in taking care of my 93-year old father. Caregivers are older spouses, adult children taking care of parents, siblings, younger children and older persons (the sandwich generation), working and non-working…the list goes on and on. Because of the demands caregiving can place, the caregiver’s health is sometimes compromised.

In many communities, African-American churches have recognized this challenge. Some churches have started caregiver support groups as a part of their ministry, while others have even provided limited respite services. The Alzheimer’s Association sponsors a series of events as part of “The Longest Day” program, highlighting the disease as well as caregivers’ devotion of time to provide care. Other organizations also focus on caregiver support through education, adult day care programs, training, and policy forums. This umbrella of services, coupled with the increasing number of caregivers, creates an environment which calls for legislative advocacy and policy solutions in regards to funding of services, employment leave opportunities, caregiver support services and related areas.

Helping caregivers and older Texans is a top priority for AARP. One focus during the 2017 legislative session was easing the stress of caring for family members. To that end, AARP helped secure new legislative solutions including the CARE Act (HB 2425). This new law directs hospital staff to show family caregivers how to manage medication and perform medical tasks before a patient is discharged. Another new law, HB 2639, extends the “silver alert” road sign notification system (used for people age 65+) to people of all ages with Alzheimer’s.

So the next time someone you know shares a caregiver story, take the time to listen, be empathetic and keep in mind this quote from George Washington Carver: “How far you go in life depends on your being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving, and tolerant of the weak and strong. Because someday in your life you will have been all of these.”

Charlene Hunter James is president of AARP Texas, a volunteer position.