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Caregivers need support (copy)

My grandparents were heroes to me. They raised me, so I know firsthand the joys that come from growing up in a grandfamily, as well as the challenges and struggles.

When I was 9, I was diagnosed with a serious childhood illness similar to spinal meningitis. I spent three months in the hospital. My grandparents had health insurance — a family plan, but it excluded grandchildren and didn’t cover my care. So they were forced to make great sacrifices to pay for the care I needed. And, of course, they did it without a second thought. Because that’s what a family does.

So when my grandmother, Nana, grew older and frail, I did not hesitate to serve as her primary caretaker. It was my honor to give back after everything she and my grandfather did for me.

Being a caretaker for her was extremely rewarding, but also challenging. For one, I was shocked to see the fraudulent solicitations for money — masquerading as charities — that my grandmother received daily by mail. And, I often struggled to find the best resources and assistance in the community on other aspects of her care.

Growing up in my grandfamily and being a caregiver shaped my future in public service and my priorities in the U.S. House of Representatives, and now in the Senate. We have a shared responsibility to guarantee that everyone has access to quality, affordable health care, and the ability to live and age with support and dignity. This is why I am proud to work across the aisle with Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine to introduce the RAISE Family Caregivers Act to ensure that everyone has access to the care and assistance they need and deserve.

Family caregivers are integral to our country’s long-term care system and our economy, but are too often overlooked as part of the care team for seniors and those with disabilities. In 2013, almost 578,000 family caregivers in Wisconsin provided more than $7 billion in unpaid care to adults who needed help with daily activities such as bathing, meal preparation and transportation.

Despite this significant contribution, family caregivers usually don’t receive any training, education or support in their caregiving role. What is more, while providing this needed care to their loved ones, most family caregivers are also struggling to juggle their own work schedules and financial needs.

If we are serious about ensuring that our older adults and loved ones with disabilities receive the highest quality care in their own homes, we must formally recognize and support family caregivers as an official member of the health care and long-term care team.

My bipartisan legislation would do this by having federal agencies, family caregivers, older adults, and other experts contribute to the creation of a national strategy on family caregivers, and plan for federal and local action to address areas such as financial security, training and supports, education and care coordination.

I’m proud that the RAISE Family Caregivers Act has earned the support of AARP, the Wisconsin Aging Advocacy Network (WAAN), and more than 45 additional national and Wisconsin organizations.

If the RAISE Family Caregivers Act had been in place when I was my grandmother’s caretaker, I know it would have been a tremendous help for me and other caregivers. Today, with an aging America, and Wisconsin, it is my hope that my colleagues in Congress can join me in support of this bipartisan effort to strengthen long-term care. Let’s work together to celebrate and support family caregivers who are making a difference in the lives of loved ones and families every day.

U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin is a Democrat from Wisconsin.

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