AT 75, TAKING CARE OF MOM, 99: ‘WE DID NOT THINK SHE WOULD LIVE THIS LONG’
Susan B. Garland
Not many years ago, Lynda Faye planned to spend her retirement gardening in Amherst, Mass., and visiting her eight grandchildren. Not on the list of golden-years pursuits: caring for a frail elderly parent.
Ms. Faye is 75, and her mother, Yetta Meisel, a widow, is 99. The former art teacher fills her days helping her mother bathe, making her meals, picking up medications, scheduling home aides and transporting a wheelchair for excursions.
“Ironically, we did not think she would live this long — she wasn’t all that healthy,” Ms. Faye said, noting years of painful stomach ailments and arthritis. Besides difficulty walking and some cognitive impairment, “she is doing fantastic.”
Ms. Faye and her mother are part of what many experts say is a growing phenomenon: Children in their 60s and 70s who are spending their retirement years caring for parents who are in their 90s and beyond.
Because of longer life spans, many adult children and their parents are now “aging together,” said Kathrin Boerner, an associate professor of gerontology at the University of Massachusetts Boston.
“People in their late 60s and early 70s thought this would be a time of life when some of their responsibilities would drop off,” Dr. Boerner said. “Even though it may be a gift to still have your parents, it can be really rough.”
Besides forcing Ms. Faye to abandon her retirement dreams, her mother’s longevity has taken a financial toll. In 2001, Ms. Faye, an only child, persuaded her parents to move to Amherst from Rochester, N.Y. They paid for an addition to Ms. Faye’s home, where they intended to live. Instead, her parents moved into a three-bedroom condominium nearby. Ms. Faye and her husband, who is 77, turned the addition into a bed-and-breakfast suite. “It was fun — I loved it,” she said.
After Mrs. Meisel’s husband died five years ago, she qualified for a state program that paid some of the costs of home aides. While Ms. Faye ran her B&B, she paid for round-the-clock care for Mrs. Meisel and her mother’s other expenses by dipping into a nest egg of about $250,000 that her father left. Within several years, the money was gone, she said.
On the advice of a financial adviser, Ms. Faye has put her house — with her “fabulous” gardens and an art studio — on the market. The B&B is closed. Ms. Faye and her husband moved into Mrs. Meisel’s condo, and her mother moved into a one-bedroom unit in the same building.
To save money, Ms. Faye cut back on the home aides. She cares for her mother three days a week, and Mrs. Meisel’s Social Security and the state program pay the balance for her care. The $200 left over each month from Mrs. Meisel’s Social Security payment does not cover the rest of her expenses; Ms. Faye said she chips in from a $1,000 monthly pension she receives from a government administrative job.
With no assets of her own, Mrs. Meisel would be eligible for nursing home care paid by Medicaid. “I could have said to my mother, ‘Off to the nursing home with you,’ but I couldn’t say that to her,’” she said. As difficult as her responsibilities are, Ms. Faye said, she considers herself “incredibly fortunate” to have a mother with a good sense of humor and who thanks her regularly.
Dr. Boerner is using a federal grant to study the relationships of 120 parents who are 90 and older and whose children are 65 and older. She found that many late-in-life caregivers, typically daughters, suffer from their own failing health, which can worsen with the stress, physical tasks and isolation that often accompany caregiving. And the financial picture can become dire. “When parents outlive their resources, the child spends resources meant for their own later life,” Dr. Boerner said.
The situation can be difficult enough for families who are close and loving. But if the parent and child had a “toxic” relationship many years ago, the child can become particularly stressed as old resentments bubble up, and the quality of caregiving could suffer, she said.
The deleterious impact on an older caregiver’s health may continue after a parent’s death. One study found that married daughters who cared for their mothers were more likely than non-caregivers to become depressed and to develop high blood pressure. Single men had higher incidences of heart problems than non-caregivers. These conditions persisted after the parent died.
“It’s hard to get rid of these chronic conditions once you have them,” said Courtney Harold Van Houtven, a co-author of that study and a population health sciences professor at Duke University School of Medicine.
To alleviate stress and to stay healthy, experts recommend that late-in-life caregivers take breaks, get regular checkups, maintain social connections and exercise. Ms. Faye said her exercise regimen, Pilates and running her two Havanese through a dog agility course, “helps keep me sane.”
But taking personal time could depend on the family’s ability to pay for home aides, adult day care and other “respite” programs. Medicaid picks up some costs for people with limited assets, but the number of hours allowed differ by state.
To figure out what’s financially doable, it may help to seek professional advice. An accountant will calculate tax breaks for home care and other services. Local senior programs could offer guidance on free and reduced-cost programs, including counseling for burned-out caregivers.
A geriatric care manager can estimate the costs of different kinds of support a parent may need over time, said Steven A. Starnes, a certified financial planner with Grand Wealth Management in Grand Rapids, Mich. With these assumptions, a financial adviser can assess what the caregiver can afford.
A financial review, Mr. Starnes said, may “help people get more comfortable with spending money on some level of support” — perhaps adult day care once a week. But children who are draining their own retirement savings should consider a nursing home that accepts Medicaid, and then pay for restaurant outings and other extras, he said.
“I don’t recommend putting your own financial security at risk to help your parents,” Mr. Starnes said. “Of course, it’s easier for me to say it than for someone emotionally to do it.”
Even when they do not pay for care, many older caregivers make financial sacrifices. In some cases, children, particularly women, are retiring earlier than they planned or are cutting back on hours, experts say.
Margaret Willits, 70, and Judi Flamenbaum, 72, who are sisters, left full-time professional jobs to care for their mother, Frances Silverstein, a 100-year-old widow. The three live in a two-bedroom apartment in Brookline, Mass.
Three years ago, when she was 97, Mrs. Silverstein was living alone in Brookline, and Ms. Willits was working full time as a nurse in charge of assessments at a nearby nursing home. She cooked her mother’s meals, did her laundry and ran errands. “I was no spring chicken, and I was doing all this running around,” Ms. Willits said.
Mrs. Silverstein’s walking ability had declined, so Ms. Willits decided to move her mother into the nursing home, where she could keep an eye on her. Mrs. Silverstein paid the facility with the roughly $20,000 in her Individual Retirement Account, and Medicaid picked up the tab when those funds were depleted.
Four months later, the nursing home closed. The sisters decided their mother would not fare well in another facility, so Ms. Willits found a place large enough for three people. Both sisters are divorced.
Ms. Flamenbaum retired from her job at LaGuardia Community College in Queens and moved to Brookline. Ms. Willits had found another full-time job, and Ms. Flamenbaum planned to care for their mother while her sister worked.
“I loved my job,” Ms. Flamenbaum said. “It was a difficult time, and my friends thought I was crazy. We were going to travel.”
But the demands of caregiving forced Ms. Willits to cut to part-time administrative work she could do from home — a loss of earnings she said put a dent in her retirement savings. She had planned to work for two more years.
Mrs. Silverstein’s Social Security pays for part of the rent and some bills. Medicaid pays for an aide six hours a day for six days a week. When the aide is in the apartment, the sisters visit restaurants and museums, meet friends and go to the movies. “You have to be good to yourself,” Ms. Willits said.
Even with a knee replacement, Ms. Willits can move her mother from a chair to her walker. Ms. Flamenbaum’s scoliosis and osteoporosis make physical work more difficult. If their mother eventually needs additional care, the sisters said, she will probably move into a nursing home.
The sisters said they are preparing for their own longevity. Their apartment building is run by a nonprofit organization that provides a range of services for seniors, and they said they have told their children that they do not expect them to become caregivers. “I would not do this to my child,” Ms. Flamenbaum said. “Put me in a nursing home.”
Mrs. Silverstein says she keeps busy watching CNN and listening to books on tape. Though she and her daughters, she said, “don’t see eye to eye on certain things,” Mrs. Silverstein praised the care they provide.
“Their life has been really rough since I can’t really move too much,” she said. “I am very lucky — they have been wonderful in every way.”