More than 180,000 Mainers are providing care for a family member, providing about 152 million hours of unpaid work each year. Credit: Dreamstime/TNS

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Amy Jane Larkin is an illustrator who lives with her husband and grandmother in Arundel.

My grandmother, Eva Barnfather, means everything to me. I was lucky to grow up in a multigenerational household with my parents and grandparents, and when my parents both passed away when I was in my 20s, my grandmother was there, like always.

My grandmother was born in 1922. She worked as an American Airlines flight attendant during World War II. She was the first woman vice principal of a large high school in western Massachusetts. And, since she retired, she’s been an active volunteer starting programs that feed people in our community.

My grandmother is an amazing person. She’s done so much for me, and as she approaches 100, I’m glad I can repay some of that by caring for her at home. Most of us want to stay in our homes as we age and be cared for with love, and I am honored to help my grandmother do that.

My husband and I are among about 181,000 Mainers (nearly 1 in 10) who are caring for a family member who is older or has a disability. That’s about 152 million hours of unpaid work annually that family caregivers, who are likely to already be low-income, do because we love our parents, sisters, brothers and children. It’s deeply rewarding work. But make no mistake, it comes at a steep cost.

The U.S. population is aging, and because our politicians have failed to prioritize regular people or their families, we have a system that depends on the unpaid labor of an estimated 53 million Americans. If we don’t change the way we care for our elders and people with disabilities, that’s only going to increase over the coming years.

Caring for a family member can put a huge financial strain on caregivers and our families. In part, that’s because workplaces also aren’t set up for the family caregivers we all depend on; 70 percent of working caregivers say they’ve had problems at work because of their caregiving role. Many leave the workforce entirely.

For the women who make up more than half of family caregivers in the U.S., the picture is even bleaker: They’re more likely to take a less demanding job, lose job-related benefits or give up work entirely. Moreover, single women who care for their elderly parents are 2.5 times more likely than non-caregivers to live in poverty in old age because they took care of their parents when they needed it most.

We need to think hard about what we value in our society, and create a care infrastructure that recognizes family caregivers as the essential workers we are. In Maine, we’re taking steps in the right direction. LD 296, a bill now in the Legislature, provides a refundable income tax credit of $2,000 for certified family caregivers.

Again, this is just one step. We need paid family and medical leave, paid sick time, flexible and fair scheduling, and legal protections for caregivers. We also need free, high-quality home- and community-based services for seniors and people with disabilities. And we need universal health care so whole families aren’t bankrupted by an illness.

The $2,000 tax credit isn’t even close to what family caregivers lose in wages, or spend on their loved ones’ care. Creating a fair and humane system for taking care of our seniors and people with disabilities at home is going to take big changes. But the credit will help, and it recognizes how important family caregivers’ labor is. As a family caregiver, I can say that means a lot.