Summit 2013

04.07.137:19 AM ET

Hillary Clinton's Missed Message and the Crisis of America’s Women Caregivers

The burdens of caring for an aging population are falling heavily on the shoulders of American women, writes Gail Sheehy.

Can you believe it? Women now live shorter lives in America than in any other major industrialized country!

That was just one of the startling warnings delivered by Hillary Clinton in a stem-winding speech introduced by Tina Brown at the Women in the World Summit on Friday.

This is a historic reversal. We may still be the richest and most powerful country in the world, but recent studies find that many of today’s American women will live shorter lives than those of their mothers.

Why? No one cause jumps out, as Clinton acknowledged, but I learned one of the possible reasons when I tracked the well-being of women in their 50s—traditionally the stage of life in which American women have been most satisfied. Many average American women in midlife—ages 45 to 55—today are bogged down by worry, sadness, and depression, according to results teased out of daily tracking by Gallup and Healthways, a well-being improvement firm. Working together, we found that emotional health problems are reported by more than 20 percent of women in midlife. Despite a record number of women in this age group taking anti-depressants, they are less happy than American women of their age at any previous time.

Emotional health cannot be separated from physical health. The number of physical problems rises as emotional problems mount. Today more than 20 percent of these women have three or four emotional health risks and admit that they don’t have enough energy to get through the day. Is it any wonder that a greater proportion are developing—and at younger ages—chronic health problems like hypertension and diabetes than previous generations of women in the same life stage? They also admit to being obese and smoking more.

What correlates with this dismal health report card?

Out of the large sample of women in midlife questioned by Gallup and Healthways, one in five of them are family caregivers. And fully half of the family caregivers say they are “suffering” or “struggling” and show lower well-being on almost every measure than their counterparts who haven’t yet been tapped to care for their parents or spouses.

This is a national crisis. And we are not addressing it as part of the unfinished agenda of the 21st century. That global agenda was declared two decades ago by then–first lady Hillary Clinton, from a hostile podium in Beijing—when she declared that “human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights, once and for all.”

If you’re a 50-year-old woman who isn’t worried about “having it all” but about losing it all—your job and your life savings— because you’re giving away your time free as a caregiver for your slow-aging parents, you may face the greatest of hidden losses: the loss of your own health.

I have heard from countless women caregivers about the stress that comes with giving up a good job to do right by an ailing loved one, only to find themselves considered too old or too “unreliable” to be rehired. When women are called upon to manage the medical, financial, and spiritual needs of a chronically ill parent over some years, they risk losing their own identities.

“Who am I?” they ask themselves, once the all-consuming role of primary caregiver ends. Often they can’t even remember what they used to like to do. And not infrequently, they die of a heart attack or stroke on the way to the hospital or memory-care center to see their elderly family members.

Even giving the unpaid work of family caregivers a value of just $10 an hour, the estimated value of that work now amounts to over $400 billion. Yet they receive no reimbursement, no tax breaks, no paid leave from most of the companies they work for, and scant national recognition.

There is a powerful economic argument to be made for communities of care to ease the solitary burden. We are losing the potential benefits of many women at the peak of their skills and experience. Expected to do more with less and less help, many burn out early and will add to the tsunami of aging Americans needing high-cost health care.

The bright spot in this otherwise dismal story is the model of Hillary Clinton. Scorned as a meddling first lady, she says she has been “ribbed and kidded” over the years by “otherwise thoughtful people” for making a strong case for equal rights for women and girls. She says she has been challenged in boardrooms and official offices across the world. But she never retreated. As Obama’s inspired choice for secretary of State, she seized the opportunity to pursue her lifelong mission on a global scale. In countries as disparate as India and Pakistan, Egypt and Libya, just about everywhere she traveled, she has argued that women’s participation in their economy, their politics, and their country’s peace-making efforts will bring greater prosperity. She has the facts to back up her claim.

But diplomacy is a slow dance. To foster cultural change takes years, decades.

That is what drove Secretary Clinton to travel to an unprecedented number of countries in her four years as secretary of State. In the process, she has been transformed into a heroic figure in the eyes of many women around the world. She has not achieved this remarkable transformation by hiring a new message manager or by apologizing for being aggressive in pursuit of her agenda. She just worked her heart out and punished her body to make this issue a pillar of America’s foreign policy. After the alarm raised by a crisis in her own health, the audience was clearly relieved to see Hillary looking rested and vibrant in a hot pink jacket. She spoke with the authority of a person who knows the world more intimately than many heads of state and whose vision is clear. Her fans erupted with cascades of applause.

And now ready to follow in her mother’s mission, Chelsea Clinton is poised to become a leader of her millennial generation. Her panel at the Women in the World Summit was a seamless segue from her mother’s speech. She urged young women to seize the opportunities opened up by technology to create websites and write programs that can help to change the world. Even if being outspoken threatens their lives, they can use the Internet to spread their messages to the ends of the earth.