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Addressing Caregiver Strain Among Faculty

Addressing Caregiver Strain Among Faculty

Nearly one-third of the nation’s medical school faculty members are 55 and older, and nearly one-fifth of them take care of elderly relatives, with most reporting emotional strain from their caregiving duties.

That’s according to a recent study by Johns Hopkins gerontologists Kimberly Skarupski and David Roth and geriatrician Samuel Durso. The trio — who looked at the experience of 2,126 full-time faculty age 55 and older, at 14 United States medical schools — say their findings are cause for concern in a nation that is rapidly graying.

Looking ahead, they note projected physician shortages, which are likely to result in faculty members caring for more patients. “Add to that the anticipated rise in faculty caregiving responsibilities, and the future academic workforce is likely to experience high levels of stress,” says Skarupski.

In the study, 90% of faculty caregivers reported emotional strain from their caregiving duties. Those who reported a lot of strain were nearly twice as likely to report depression as caregivers who reported only some strain, says Roth, who directs Johns Hopkins’ Center on Aging and Health.

He notes that 50 years ago, working mothers began advocating for flexible schedules, child care and day care resources. “We need similar support for employees who have parents in their 80s and 90s,” he says.

Like many of her caregiving colleagues, Skarupski draws from personal experience. Her 76-year-old mother, a former radiologic technician, died in February 2020, after spending five weeks in a hospital, nursing home and hospital intensive care unit in Erie, Pennsylvania. During that time, Skarupski traveled as often as she could to visit and help with caregiving. She remembers joyful moments together during that time, she says. “I feel incredibly blessed to have had the job flexibility to be with my mom in her final weeks. My heart aches for those who aren’t afforded that gift.”

Durso says he’s seeing a growing number of older adults who have assumed caregiving roles for their frail parents. When asked for elder caregiving advice, he, too, draws from personal experience — from the nearly two years that he and his wife cared for her frail, ill grandmother in their home. “We didn’t get much sleep, but being involved in her care gave our whole family more empathy and insight into what caregivers go through,” he says.

Durso, Roth and Skarupski hope that the results of their study will help start a national conversation to provide better support for caregivers. “Human resource and faculty development leaders in academia, should strategically invest in policies, programs, and resources to meet these growing workforce needs,” they write.
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