There are an astonishing 53 million unpaid family caregivers in the United States today. Here’s how to authentically capture their experience in images.
Last December, shortly after Lindsay Ellis moved from New York to California for her dream job in tech, she got a call from the ICU. Her father, who’s based in Charlottesville, Virginia, had a brain bleed. “They did an MRI and saw that he had a big brain tumor,” Lindsay, now 28, tells Shutterstock. It turned out to be Stage IV melanoma.
Lindsay, her father’s only child, flew to be with him as he underwent surgery and started radiation. She cleaned his house. Did his food shopping. Managed his health insurance.
She became his caregiver.
According to Caregiving in the U.S., a report from the National Alliance of Caregiving and AARP, there are 53 million unpaid caregivers in the United States today, and that number is expected to grow as baby boomers, one of the largest demographic groups, continue to age (they’ll start turning 80 in 2026).
Some caregivers will have a story like Lindsay, who travels on a regular basis to help her dad and pays out of her own pocket for additional care. Some will have a story that looks very different. But few will see their experience represented in the stock photography and marketing campaigns that exist today, because most images are dated and unrealistic.
Understanding the Caregiver Role
Stock imagery would have you believe a caregiver’s job is to push a gray-haired person around in a wheelchair.
“Everything is an image of people holding hands—so many hands,” says Jason Resendez, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Caregiving (NAC), a nonprofit that leverages policy, advocacy, and research to build equity for family caregivers.
In reality, caregivers provide a wide range of support. They cook, clean, manage finances, assist with dressing and bathing—the list goes on.
“A lot of people help aging relatives with things like meal preparation or grocery shopping or transportation to medical appointments,” says Lydia Storie, associate director of culture change at Caring Across Generations, a national organization that advocates for care reform.
“These are little things that we just assume are the ordinary responsibilities of life, but they’re actually care.”
One way to improve imagery is to offer visuals that reflect these often overlooked everyday duties, like a photo of a son helping his father put on a sweater or a daughter checking labels at the grocery store or a husband taking his wife to an appointment. (Tip: Get creative with your search terms. You don’t have to stick with just “caregiving.”)
Resendez would also like to find more photos of caregivers in healthcare settings. “You’ll see images of a provider and a patient, but you’ll rarely see a depiction of a family and a provider—and that’s more realistic,” he says. According to Caregiving in the U.S., more caregivers are acting as healthcare advocates than ever before.
“I think a lot of marketers are just like, ‘Oh, caregivers: I can paint them with the same brush,’” says Jeff Weiss, CEO and President of Age of Majority, a consulting firm that focuses on older adults (the company recently released a report on marketing to caregivers).
“They treat family caregivers as a homogeneous group who have the same needs—and that’s the first mistake they’re making.”
Finding Honest Moments
Stock photography is often slick and overly posed, and that can be off-putting, especially when it’s meant to portray something as real and meaningful as caregiving.
“People have to be able to see themselves in a situation, and the imagery and visuals we see now, for the most part, just don’t [allow for] that,” Weiss says. “It’s like, ‘That’s not me. That’s not realistic, and I can’t relate to it.’”
Authenticity is tough to capture, but a good place to start is by choosing photos that feel candid and active. If you’re selecting from images of a father and son on a bench, for instance, go with the one where they’re laughing instead of the one where they’re smiling stiffly at the camera (just make sure the laugh looks natural). If you’re choosing from shots of a mother and daughter on a stroll, find one where they’re seen mid-conversation.
“Caregiving creates a really unique form of human connection,” Storie says. “I think trying to capture caregiving authentically is trying to capture that humanity, the essence of that bond, in a real way.”
Don’t be afraid to think outside the box and show images of care partners engaged in livelier activities, like gardening or barbecuing.
“Society has this depiction of a care recipient being someone who’s frail,” Weiss says. “Where it’s like, ‘Oh, let me take care of you, mother,’ or something like that.” But plenty of care recipients are fit, sharp, and perfectly capable of enjoying a hobby alongside their family caregiver—even if they do need some help managing their household chores after the fact.
Regardless of a care recipient’s physical ability, imagery should never portray them as childlike or inferior. Older people deserve dignity, and as many caregivers will tell you: Their elders are still the ones calling the shots!
Focusing on the Joys of Caregiving
It may be tempting to zero in on the challenges of caregiving given how hard the job is and how little support and resources caregivers get. But that approach could backfire.
“There are a lot of emotional, personal reasons why people are caregivers,” Weiss says, pointing to his company’s research on marketing to caregivers, which shows that the number one reason caregivers take on their role is out of love for their care recipient.
“For a lot of people it’s like, ‘This is the person who brought me into the world’ or ‘This is the person I spent my life with,’” he says. “So you want to focus on the positive rather than the negative.”
That’s not to say you can’t show an image of, say, a caregiver having a tough conversation with their loved one (it happens). But you should be mindful of the feelings an image stirs up. If it’s positioning caregiving as a burden, you might want to go in a different direction.
Breaking Down the Demographics
Many people think of caregivers as white, middle-aged women, but more than ever, the stats say otherwise:
- 61% of caregivers are non-Hispanic white; 17% are Hispanic/Latino; 14% are African American; and 5% are Asian American and Pacific Islander.
- One in four caregivers are part of the Millennial generation (and within that subset, more than half are African American/Black, Hispanic/Latino, or Asian American/Pacific Islanders, and 12% identify as LGBTQ).
- More than 40% of caregivers are men.
Caregiving imagery, like all imagery, should be diverse—and not just because the demographics break down that way on a pie chart, but because all people deserve representation.
“People want to see themselves in the images around them,” Resendez says. “So even if American Indian and Alaskan Natives don’t make up a huge portion of family caregivers, there should still be images that represent American Indian and Alaskan Natives, for whom we know caregiving is a big part of the community.”
Why Caregiver Representation Matters
Improving caregiving imagery has a number of benefits. From a business standpoint, it engages a huge, largely untapped market. From a social standpoint, it invites more honest dialogue around caregiving, which could in turn lead to some much-needed policy changes.
“We’ve kept caregiving fairly invisible,” Storie says. “I think one of the biggest shifts that we can make in culture is to take it from being invisible to visible. If we can [do that], we can hopefully open the doors to more honest, authentic, real conversations around the challenges of caregiving—and the possible solutions.”
Resendez agrees. “Policy-makers still don’t understand the far-reaching impacts of caregiving on families, communities, and the economy,” he says. “So I think anything we can do to promote caregiving, to show how everyone is connected by care, would help.”
A photo isn’t going to change society overnight, but it can move things in the right direction. At the very least, it might make otherwise underrepresented caregivers like Lindsay Ellis feel a little less alone.
“That would be great,” she says. “It’s been a long journey.”
License this cover image via Erickson Stock.