Star Tribune journalist goes deep on reporting caregiving – and experiencing it

Jackie Crosby is a general assignment business reporter at the Star Tribune where she often writes about the ways an aging population is changing how we live, work and play.

Star Tribune reporter Jackie Crosby photographed in the Star Tribune photo studio in Minneapolis. (Leila Navidi/Star Tribune)

Many of her stories explore the complexities of navigating the aging journey, and the issues and trends affecting seniors today. Her in-depth reporting on the challenges family caregivers face while supporting older loved ones led to a major series: “Aging Parents, Stressed Families.”

Crosby’s research for the series was supported by the O’Brien Fellowship in Public Service Journalism at Marquette University. Her work earned national and local journalism honors from such organizations as the National Press Club of Atlantic City, the Society of American Business Editors and Writers, and the Minnesota Society of Professional Journalists.

Crosby is a 25-year veteran journalist at the Star Tribune. She received her Bachelor of Arts degree in journalism from the University of Georgia and her MBA from the University of Central Florida.

As part of Face Aging MN’s new series, “Scoop on Senior Care,” in which we talk to journalists who cover senior issues, we asked Crosby to tell us more about what she has learned from her extensive reporting on senior care.

Questions and answers have been edited lightly for length and clarity.

In what ways did writing your series change your perceptions of caregiving and elderly care in Minnesota?

It made me realize that my experience and that of so many of my friends and coworkers was an important political, social and health care issue. The nation is still really unprepared to handle the needs of a rapidly aging population.

Caring for elders is something families – mostly daughters – have always done. But people are living longer, family sizes are shrinking, more women are in the labor force, and adult children are geographically spread out. Hiring out care or moving parents to assisted living is incredibly expensive. People who have saved and been responsible with their money can quickly drain their life’s savings to pay for nursing home care if they need it – and then the tab falls to taxpayers.

The guiding question of the series was: How can society better support the essential work of unpaid family caregivers – in the workplace, in the community, through public policy and in the health care system? Addressing those questions will be essential as this unprecedented demographic shift occurs. There’s not enough public money in Social Security or Medicaid, and there aren’t enough paid workers willing or able to do the work.

Researchers, demographers and aging activists have been talking about this caregiving gap for years, but there’s a surprising lack of urgency around it.

In an article describing your work on this series, you highlight the gaps in care that you personally encountered as you helped support aging parents. How did your own experience as a family caregiver shape your perspective on these issues?

I spent several years reporting on health care and the insurance industry, and I felt like I had a pretty good handle on how things worked. But it was stunning to realize how confusing and time-consuming it was to navigate these systems once my parents started having health issues.

This was an almost universal feeling among the more than two dozen caregivers I spent time with. They came from all walks of life and were dealing with different issues including dementia and the basic frailty of old age. I realized how much I benefited from having a flexible workplace and job protections provided by the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which allows for unpaid leave.

Something like 40 percent of American workers don’t have access to FMLA, and even fewer get paid leave. It’s pretty much impossible for low-wage workers to take unpaid time off to care for a sick or dying family member.

Soon one in four Minnesota adults will be 65 or older. How can Minnesota better support older adults and their caregivers?

Minnesota has a history of tackling social issues in innovative and bipartisan ways. AARP routinely ranks Minnesota among the top tier of states in a fairly rigorous scorecard on services for older adults and their caregivers.

Early in my reporting, a retired state official in the aging field told me: “In Minnesota, we’re blessed because we have so many choices in services and supports. And in Minnesota, we’re cursed because we have so many choices in services and supports.”

When families are in crisis, they can’t easily figure out where to get help – even if there’s the perfect program, social worker or case manager out there to help them. That’s why the Wilder Foundation created its public awareness campaign around caregiving several years ago. The organization had excellent programs, but, as Wilder’s Maureen Kenney told me, “Our phone was not ringing off the hook.”

So helping older adults and their busy, stressed out family caregivers find what they need remains a huge challenge.

I’ve written about some of these efforts, including Juniper, a statewide initiative led by the Metropolitan Area Agency on Aging to get doctors and insurance companies to recommend and pay for things like fall prevention and nutrition classes. The Minnesota Department of Human Services and State Board on Aging are doing interesting work to spark ideas for new models of long-term care insurance.

Face Aging is part of this broader effort to raise awareness and help Minnesotans take responsibility for their futures.

But it’s a many-sided issue. Individuals need to save more for old age, and families need to discuss finances and prepare health care directives. Employers need to find ways to support their workers, and the health care system needs more people trained in geriatrics. Adult day programs can be a godsend for working caregivers, but many of the programs shut their doors at 3 p.m.

What was a particularly poignant or surprising moment for you that happened as you developed this series?

While my series highlighted growing burdens on families, it must be said that family caregiving is also deeply rewarding. It is sad and complicated, no question. But for me and many others, spending intimate time with our parents when they are vulnerable and at the end of their lives is a life-changing experience.

During my reporting, families opened their lives to me and Star Tribune photographers. They gave us access to private moments and shared details with us in the hope that this issue would move from the bedside into public discourse. I was honored to try to share their stories.

What sort of reactions have you received from family caregivers and other Minnesotans impacted by your stories and these issues?

Overwhelmingly there was a sense of gratitude that someone was telling their stories and they weren’t alone in it.

2 thoughts on “Star Tribune journalist goes deep on reporting caregiving – and experiencing it

  1. Caregiving is a rewarding experience as I was one for 30 years. Currently I am employed as a Housing Manager for an Assistant Living facility. I love working and caring for the elderly as it is like a family unit. We care and love our residents!❤

    1. How wonderful you love your paid job, Diane.
      I, too, spent a good portion of my working life as a “caretaker” in institutions, group homes etc.
      I also have been a caretaker for 20 yrs now. I have had a succession of experience. I helped care for both my parents before they died, my oldest child as she navigated a rare disease and my husband who had the same disease. Now I am in the midst of my husband’s final illness…kidney failure.
      I can tell you that being a professional care taker is way different than being an unpaid caretaker. The stress of trying manage family finances because you can’t work as much or managing to work a job while also balancing the caring for a sick family member adds an extra dimension of stress to the job.
      It is comparing apples to oranges.

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