"At first you're just helping out Mom. Then it can become more than a fulltime job," said AARP's Whitman.
She described the average U.S. caregiver as a 49-year-old woman who on top of her regular job provides nearly 20 hours a week of unpaid care to her mother for nearly five years.
An AARP report found family members provide a staggering $450 billion worth of unpaid care annually — and other research makes clear that the stress and the time involved can take a toll on the caregivers' own health and finances as they put off their own doctor visits, dip into their savings and cut back their working hours.
Adding to the challenge is that more and more people are living well into their 90s, as Census figures show the oldest-old are the fastest growing segment of the population.
Consider Oona Schmid's father, who is 96 and has advanced dementia. The Arlington, Va., woman has overseen his care for a decade, since her mother died — and said she could have better planned how to pay for it if only someone had warned her how long people can live with dementia. She said the bill at her father's assisted-living facility has reached nearly $8,000 a month as he now needs round-the-clock care.
"I don't think he knows who I am, but he still smiles when he sees me," Schmid said. She choked up as she described the pull she feels between her responsibilities to her father and to her 3-year-old son, fretting that there's no money left to set aside for her son's education.
Schmid, 41, works fulltime, pet-sits for extra cash and is exploring options to save on her father's care.
"Maybe this is a terrible thing to say but I'm terrified of how long he's going to live and how much it's going to cost," she said.
Like Schmid's father, very few Americans have purchased private, and pricey, long-term care insurance, and Medicare doesn't pay for that kind of care. That's why family members wind up performing so much of it for so long. The Obama administration last fall ended efforts to establish a government-sponsored program to make long-term care insurance more affordable, finding it financially unsustainable.
A key message of the new campaign is for caregivers not to neglect their own needs.
The ads direct people to AARP's website — www.aarp.org/caregiving — to find information and services from that organization and others, what Whitman describes as a one-stop starting point for resources.
The site offers Web chats with caregiving experts, online support groups, legal documents and links to such programs as locators for care providers — www.eldercare.gov — or respite services — www.archrespite.org. A new "Prepare to Care" brochure offers to-do checklists for families new to caregiving, and people not as web-savvy can call a hotline at 877-333-5885.