According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a government agency, the current  life expectancy of Americans is 78.5 years. It has been going up, and that, of course, is good news. Nevertheless, an elderly relative who needs expensive long-term care could cause financial and emotional problems for the rest of the family.

Because the risk of needing long-term care increases with age, it is important to plan ahead, both for yourself and other family members. For most people, the best time to take steps to address your family’s needs is when you are relatively young and in good health.

Background: Long-term care is the type of help people need when they are unable to perform “activities of daily living” (ADLs), such as eating, bathing and dressing. Typically, the ADLs do not have to be provided by doctors or by skilled nursing professionals.

Frequently, it is assumed that long-term care means care in a nursing home. While some people do require such specialized care, the type of long-term care may vary widely. Family members, adult day care centers and assisted-living facilities are among the most common care providers. Long-term care is not defined by the setting in which it takes place but by the type of care that is needed.

The family dynamic today has changed. Frequently, children live half a world away—or at least in another part of the country—while single-parent homes are more common and more women have successful careers. The types of “safety nets” on which many of the elderly felt they could rely in the past, such as in-home assistance from a relative living nearby or by someone living in the same home, may no longer be available to those requiring care.

Remember that long-term care has an impact on the entire family, not just the person in need of care. For instance, a family member—usually, a middle-aged adult with children of his or her own—might assume the role of unpaid caregiver for an aging parent or spouse. These caregivers typically must make adjustments at work and in their careers, such as taking unexpected leaves of absence or having to turn down promotions, to provide the needed care for an ailing relative. Being a caregiver may also have an impact on his or her own family life (possibly even leading to divorce) and overall personal health.

Final words: With advance planning, you can help protect your family’s assets and current lifestyle. Meet this challenge head-on before it’s too late.