When it comes to taking care of loved ones, we’re accustomed to putting their needs first. Parents would do anything for their kids. Children of aging parents feel the same way about their folks. This feels right. However, when we’re making decisions in the moment to prioritize our loved one’s care, we may be unknowingly jeopardizing another loved one’s future. Today we’ll focus on elder care. A future blog will consider the other piece of the caregiving sandwich—children. Be forewarned: some of the following stories and the images they evoke are unpleasant.
Planning for Mom and Dad
Picture this: Lakeisha is in her 60s. She cares for her aging parents, both of whom have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. As her folks became more impaired, they needed increasingly expensive daily care in more and more specialized facilities. We don’t get a script for how life will play out, so it is impossible to predict whether Lakeisha’s parents’ remaining nest egg will be sufficient to cover the escalating cost of care. I asked about her strategy for her parents running out of money. She didn’t want to consider any type of government assistance and pledged that she would pay for their care out of her own savings, delaying her own retirement if necessary. Love inspires us to make decisions like these! The sad news is that Lakeisha’s parents did not outlive their nest egg. The silver lining is that she was saved from making good on her willingness to provide for her parents financially, even to her own financial detriment.
Another client, we’ll call her Charlotte, made a similar decision. But her parents did exhaust their nest egg. In order to pay for their care, she used her emergency savings, then cut back on her retirement contributions and finally borrowed from her 401(k). All along, though she’s in her 60s, she’s telling herself that she’ll just continue working and will have time to get back on track. Then her company is sold and she’s downsized, unexpectedly finding herself out of work. This is a frightening picture! Having used her resources to take care of her parents, she doesn’t have enough to secure her own situation. Not only does Charlotte have to find a new solution for the folks, without money or time on her side, she has to do it under the added financial pressure of being unemployed. Charlotte has adult children with their own young families. They face a new burden--not only is Mom in financial distress now, she may be for the rest of her life.
Jerry has made the same decisions for his father’s care that Lakeisha and Charlotte made. A high-earning attorney, he planned to extend his working life however long was necessary to cover his dad’s care and then get back on track so that he and his wife would be able to retire. He is the primary breadwinner in his home. Jerry didn’t plan on his disabling stroke. Now his wife is trying to care for him and his father and make ends meet, without Jerry’s income. Jerry’s adult children, who have children of their own, are scrambling to figure out how they’ll take care of their parents and grandfather. This isn’t something any parent would wish on a child…but it happens when we make loving decisions in the moment without considering the longer term ramifications.
I don’t have children who will suffer the consequences if I impoverish myself taking care of my dad. Still, someone who loves me—a sibling, friend, niece or nephew, will likely try to help me if I get in to financial trouble. My love for these individuals motivates me to think through the far-reaching implications of my caregiving decisions.
Caregiving and your relationships
Caregiving has ramifications beyond today’s cost. The time and emotional energy we devote to looking after a loved one in decline leaves us with less to devote to the rest of our lives. Like parents with small children, caregivers have less bandwidth for careers and other relationships. Many marriages would not have survived the past decade during which I’ve cared for my father, which followed a couple of years of taking care of both of my parents before my mom’s death. I acknowledge my bias, but my father is an outstanding, kind, caring, funny, lovable person. Shout out to Ron for being willing to have both of our lives revolve around my dad for many years so far and no end in sight. It’s easy to imagine a less lovable parent or a spouse less able to deal with being neglected by a caregiver who is busy elsewhere. Caregiving will stress your other close relationships.
How does your career fit in?
You’ve heard of the mommy track? Women who try to have it all but need career flexibility to raise children face fewer opportunities for career advancement. This impacts both earning power and job satisfaction for years to come. The caregiver track is similar. Caregivers may not have the energy or life flexibility to pursue career opportunities. I delayed a career change during the time I cared for my ailing mother. My work was no longer fulfilling, but I didn’t have the energy to pursue a change. My life was consumed with organizing Mom’s care from a distance and flying to California for a week each month to be with her.
My friend Sue cared for her mom through more than a decade of decline. As the years passed and her mom’s needs increased, Sue cut back on her work commitments. In the final year of her mom’s life, Sue was so depressed and overwhelmed with her mom’s situation, her own physical and mental health were being jeopardized. Thankfully, she was able to see her mom through to the end. She is rebuilding her business and regaining her strength, and is grateful that she was able to care for her mom…but what a cost!
Planning makes it possible!
OK, so now you’re depressed—sorry for the wake-up call. Caring for declining loved ones is demanding, but can be rewarding, too. I’ve had more one-on-one time with each of my parents in their later years than I ever had before. These days and years of feeling my father’s love and having the opportunity to demonstrate my love for him will warm and hearten me when he is gone.
You can reap the rewards of caring for a loved one and take care of yourself, too! Take the time, as you start the journey, to plan thoughtfully, get the help you need, and weigh the financial and life consequences of your care decisions. My local hospice sponsors caregiver training and group support sessions. The senior services branch of the hospital offers respite care and caregiver counseling, in addition to education about resources for caregivers. My parents’ health insurance covered the cost of a social worker who early on taught me to navigate the maze of care services. Are similar resources available to you? It is worth the time to seek these out and take advantage of them. Getting help is a necessary step in preparing for the long-term.
Discuss the financial implications of your caregiving choices with a trusted advisor. Get your thoughts outside of your head and see how they hold up in the light of day! Considering the options and their ramifications on the front end with an objective third party will help you make the best decisions for you and your family. Need to talk over your situation with an advisor who is on the same path? Give me a call at 336-701-2612.
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