By Kathy A. Miller

Columnist

Despite the emotional and physical toll that comes with taking on the care of an aging loved one, most family caregivers would gladly take the journey again. 

The rewards of caregiving are profound, and most of us are willing to make a few necessary sacrifices. But taking on the long-term commitment of caring for a senior who wants to age in place can require more than time and patience. Many devoted caregivers are discovering that the greatest challenge they face in providing on-going care for a beloved parent or other senior, is an unforgiving bottom line.

A recent study conducted by the Met Life Mature Market Institute, in conjunction with the National Alliance for Caregiving and the New York Medical College estimates that nearly 10 million adults over the age of 50 are caring for aging parents.

That number is roughly triple what it was 15 years ago. Americans are simply living longer. Unfortunately, though, many have not set aside enough to pay for the years of care that they may require. As a consequence, family members are forced to adapt their own lifestyles to help accommodate their loved one’s increased need for support. For some, that means stepping up to pay for full-time or part-time care, either at home or in a long-term care facility. Others take a more hands-on approach, adapting work schedules and dividing responsibilities among family members or leaving the workforce entirely to provide 24-hour care. Either way, the cost can be significant and life-changing.

Caregivers who continue to work often are torn between work responsibilities and caring for their loved one. Down-time becomes a luxury that is all too often out of reach, as vacation and sick days are used to fulfill caregiving responsibilities. Lunch hours are either spent juggling errands or never happen at all, as the overworked caregiver makes up for the days when leaving early or arriving late simply could not be avoided. The stress of this frenetic pace can be tremendous, resulting in health complications including anxiety and depression, and the physical manifestations of stress.

An employer that is creative in their willingness to accommodate family caregivers can help.

Fortunately, increasing numbers of employers offer some flexibility, but for most workers, it’s a case of sink or swim. In today’s competitive job market, if an employee is unable to keep up due to family obligations, he or she is likely to miss out on promotions and other opportunities.

Hiring someone to help lighten the load can be difficult and expensive. Most seniors are simply not in a position to pay for in-home care out-of-pocket, and Medicare does not pay for these services. Consequently, the responsibility falls to grown children to bear the financial burden, often at the time when they themselves are feeling pressure to plan for the future.

The cost of care may even require that the caregiver reduce contributions to their own retirement accounts or eliminate deposits entirely.

For caregivers who choose to leave the workforce to provide full-time care, the results can be even more damaging. Many are forced to tap into retirement funds early to supplement their income, forfeiting valuable interest and incurring penalties for early withdrawal. In addition to lost wages, they lose potential contributions to Social Security, decreasing the benefit for which they will be eligible upon reaching their own age of retirement.

Furthermore, once their season of caregiving ends, they may find it difficult to re-enter the workforce as a result of their increased age and gaps in their work history.

Sadly, for millions of baby boomers, it may be too late to effectively plan for the possibility of living to 100. Families, however, should have frank conversations well before the need for care manifests.

If aging parents are financially ill-prepared, children may want to begin planning for a time when they may have to help pay for care. In families where there are multiple siblings, each should be honest about what he or she believes they may reasonably expect to contribute.

A skilled financial planner may be able to help make the most of what resources will be available when the time comes. Like most delicate family situations, communication is crucial, and the sooner the better.

Miller is caregiver coordinator for LTCA of Enid Area Agency on Aging.

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