by Teresa Heinz Kerry and Jeffrey Lewis

In the middle of the night, an elderly parent cries out, and time and again, it is a daughter answering the call, a woman who only hours later and with little sleep will call out to her own children, telling them it’s time for breakfast and school. And, as she watches the kids head for the bus, she’ll dread the thought of being a burden to them as she grows old.

Every morning, millions of American women wake to tough economic times with growing anxieties about how to care for their aging parents, their own families and their own retirement years. It’s mostly women responsible for the care of elderly relatives — seven out of every 10 adult children helping their parents are female, according to the Older Women’s League. And many of those women are single, divorced or widowed, shouldering the burden alone, living longer with fewer resources.

Long-term care is the real American health care crisis. The American people know it because they’re living it. Two-thirds of American seniors recognize the need to plan for long-term care, yet only 12 percent feel they’re adequately prepared. But it is a crisis Congress avoids, focused instead on redesigning our health care system to help the uninsured.

Meanwhile, it’s the women caregivers whose unpaid labor is helping Congress by relieving budgetary pressures. In purely economic terms, researchers estimate the value of services family caregivers provide at $148 billion to $188 billion a year, helping seniors enjoy the significant physical and emotional comfort of their own homes, even when they can’t care for themselves. By remaining in their homes, those seniors don’t depend on public money for facilities for their needs.

It isn’t easy to wade through information about long-term care planning. Some of it is well intended but confusing. And some is only intended to profit off people’s vulnerability and confusion.

But most Americans — because of social needs, disability, trauma or illness — will require long-term care services at some point in their lives. Focusing on those questions now not only helps bring you peace of mind but can also save you and your family from potentially devastating expenses later.

The Heinz Family Philanthropies has partnered with the Foundation for the Future of Aging in developing the ”10 Questions to Answer” series (www.tenquestionstoanswer.org) — information to assist consumers and family caregivers who are planning for, choosing and managing long-term care. The series guides consumers in thinking about all of the available long-term care options, while focusing on quality of life.

Having a plan in place gives people and their families peace of mind while sparing them the emotional upheaval that comes from making decisions in the midst of a health crisis.

With long-term care there are no easy answers. Our goal is a simple one: Provide information to help everyone understand they are not alone.

Teresa Heinz Kerry is chairman of the Heinz Family Philanthropies. Jeffrey Lewis is the president and can be reached at [email protected]

Reprinted from The Morning Call, Allentown, PA.

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