As Americans age, and living well into the 90s or even past 100 is increasingly common, the nation is facing a crisis in caring for the elderly.

It can be particularly hard on the middle class — those not poor enough to qualify for federal benefits for long-term care and not wealthy enough to afford the high cost of assisted-living facilities or in-home helpers. In fact, much of the daily care for aging parents is done by family members — typically a middle-aged daughter who also is juggling a job and raising children.

It’s not always older relatives who need help. Severely injured veterans and children with special needs require constant care, too. Neighbors and friends also are a growing part of this quiet army of caregivers whom President Obama has described as “humble heroes.” Many of them, he said, “have put their own lives on hold to lift up someone close to them.”

To spotlight an issue that is changing the rhythm of daily life for many families, The Washington Post recently held “Caregiving in America” forums in Chicago and Seattle. Excerpts from speakers at those events are included in this special report.

“Budgets reflect our values,” Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn (D) told the crowd gathered in downtown Chicago. He said more resources should be directed toward supporting caregivers. Without them, he said, the financial toll on our health-care system would be astronomical.

It’s a job with a high burnout rate, many speakers said. Former first lady Rosalynn Carter said caregivers need to take breaks and talk to others facing similar circumstances. It’s critical not to be isolated, she said in an interview. “The chances are that we will all become a caregiver at some point in our lives,” she said.

Rick Steves, a travel writer and television host, urged those caring for parents with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia to “take them out in public with no apologies. . . . It’s amazing to me how many things can be closeted in this great nation of ours.”

With demographic shifts and growing worries about who will care for the aging in years to come, there was talk of government incentives for in-home caregivers and turning to the “young old,” those in their late 60s and 70s, for help.

“I am a great believer in being useful,” said Alene Moris, a women’s rights leader in Seattle who at 85 has recently served as a caregiver. She said the elderly don’t want to be viewed as a problem, and certainly can be part of the solution.  

See a PDF version of the caregiving special report.