Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Is elder care more difficult than child care?

I am at an interesting place on my life path right now. My daughter is nine, and I feel that I am standing on a little hill that allows me to see all the way back to the day she was born, while also being able to look ahead to the day she grows up and leaves home.

My parents are in their later sixties and two of my grandparents are still living, in their nineties.

When elder care issues arise, they can come on quickly, forcefully, and unexpectedly. I have heard elder care described as "the joker in the middle-class deck of cards." I urge you to talk about elder care planning with your own parents, to lessen the impact of a crisis.

We urgently need to grapple with these issues as a society. I truly feel that as the Baby Boomers age, we'll either find a way to deal with these issues in a sustainable way, or else it has the potential to crush us economically, emotionally, and spiritually.

Here are some factors that make elder care more challenging in many ways than child care.

It can turn the child-parent relationship on its head, which feels bad.

When you are a parent raising children, it's natural to be the one in charge. When you become an adult child trying to help your parents, that dynamic can get reversed to some extent, whether you want it to or not, which feels really bad. And the generational layers really get stacked up. At age 40 you may be a mother and a daughter. At age 65 you may be a grandmother....and still also a daughter with primary caregiving responsibilities.

It's expensive.

Long-term care in the Raleigh area costs an average of $180 a day, or $65,700 a year. That's like having multiple kids in college at once (and by the way, this need might arrive just as your kids are going to college).

It can arise as a crisis.

Earlier this month I listened to a panel of adult children talk about caregiving, and they all had stories that went something like this. "My mother was living on her own, and that worked well for a while, and then one day...." Any number of crises arose and the children had to put their lives on hold to figure out what came next. I am a big proponent of planning head for these situations, but the truth is that no matter what, if your parent has a crisis, it will feel like a crisis to you, too. But the magnitude of the crisis can be lessened by having a care plan in place ahead of time--for instance, getting elders settled in a retirement community to make friends while they are healthy, and for you to have a wide and deep support network of your own.

When a crisis occurs, whether it's health related, job loss, financial meltdown, or divorce, your parents may suddenly need a lot of care, time and energy. I have come around to the point of view that women should try their best to develop a career amidst caregiving concerns, whether it's children or parents, because these issues never really go away. If you are waiting for a perfectly calm time in your life to arise before you go back to work, that time may never come.

It could last longer than raising kids.

Your kids are likely to be out of the house in about twenty years. Your parents' elder years could stretch for 30 or 40 years. That's why their life situation absolutely needs to become sustainable. Unfortunately, our current ideas about retirement don't really account for thirty years of post-employment living. So people will need to work longer and save more. Not an easy thing in this current financial crisis when retirement savings have been slashed.

It's not optional.

Neither is raising kids, in a global sense. But everyone has parents, whether they see themselves as caregivers or not. In the long run, the fact that caregiving is not optional is potentially a good thing, because it means that we'll all have to deal with family caregiving, which means it might finally get some public policy attention. The bad news: the work of caregiving still falls mainly on the women in the family.

It brings up old family issues again.

Finally, it's one of those ironic life lessons to see that old issues you thought you had come to terms with suddenly make a comeback. For me it's been my parents' divorce. They've been divorced for 25 years and I made peace with that long ago. But now that they are reaching retirement, both single again and newly trying to co-exist in the greater Triangle area, I feel like "It's baaaaaaack!" The logistical and financial issues of divorce have come to light again. For one thing, they know they're not both coming to live with me (which means that pratically speaking, neither of them is coming to live with me). A married couple can enter retirement living together for much less than two singles. So for my parents, if they needed skilled care and didn't have long-term care insurance, it could cost a total of more than $130,000 a year. Also, divorced women who were "displaced homemakers" may find that their Social Security payments are a lot less than their ex-husbands'. Women are likely to live longer yet often have less Social Security and pension benefits.

So thankfully, each of them now has them long-term care insurance. When that was accomplished recently, that I immediately felt a weight lifted slightly off my shoulders. (Did I mention that I am an only child? The buck stops here in all sorts of ways.)

I wish I could wrap up with an uplifting life lesson, but the truth is that I really have not come to terms with all of this yet. I have been pretty immune to feeling Mommy Guilt, but I feel crushing daughter guilt at times. Of course I love my parents and I am really fortunate to have them living nearby--that's a good thing. But the crises wear me down, they can't be timed or planned. The crises piled on in the last six months. Last fall my Dad needed me, my Mom needed me, I was finishing my book, and I was recovering from my unplanned appendectomy. And yes, my husband and child needed me, too, even as they took really good care of me.

I am sad that the easy time is over, and I didn't even recognize the easy time when it was happening. (It all depends on the definition of easy, too.) This new phase of my life feels like it has many off-ramps that lead to depression. I can see how people let themselves go in middle age, losing their mojo once again, preferring to be distracted and numb, and I am determined not to let that happen. I want to enjoy my life and the time my family has together, as much as possible.

This is probably the most downbeat blog post I've ever written, but I wanted to be honest with you and not sugar-coat it. I am in the midst of the maelstrom and haven't found my firm footing yet. Your thoughtful replies and perspectives are most welcome....

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Anonymous CoffeeJitters (Judy Haley) said...

this is such a scary issue for me too. my dad died a year ago at age 61. he had a little life insurance, but a good chunk of that has already been consumed by our economy over the past year. just trying to maintain the mother-daughter relationship with my mom, while at the same time, trying to explain to her that she can't be as frivolous with her money as she used to be is difficult. i know it's just going to get worse as she get older and her health issues continue to complicate each other

6:10 PM  
Blogger MojoMom said...

Hi Judy, Thank you for sharing your experience. I am sorry for your loss.

Caregiving is connected to such hard issues that I hate to even bring them up (honestly, I wish I didn't have to think about them). But we all need to start thinking ahead, even if it's difficult. I think a part of my mission as Mojo Mom will continue to be related to this unavoidable topic. I do address it head-on in my new book.

8:14 PM  
Anonymous Linda said...

I can identify with your post. My father slipped and fell last week and died leaving my mother who is not very mobile. I am getting all kinds of suggestions on what to do with my mom. I am dealing with trying to convince people to let her be as independent as possible but knowing that I will have to eventually find her care and she will not be cooperative. You are so right about situations like this bringing up old feelings about family. I was trying to mentally prepare for the eventual care of my parents...I was not ready.

1:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As hard as child care is, elder care is much harder. With our children, we are buoyed by transcendent love. Not so with our parents. With our children, we are uplifted by the promise of better days, brighter futures. But not so with our elders. And yet, in the doing, the moment to moment activity, the care is nearly exactly the same. What does that show us about ourselves, and how we make circumstances more difficult by how we think about them? We are so outcome oriented in our thinking, and elder care forces us to come to grips with things as they are. A true test and enduring lesson in what love can do.

1:15 PM  
Blogger Margaret said...

I am writing from the perspective of the Baby Boomer generation--63 years old with a 90-year-old Mother who chose with Dad 25+ years ago to move into a retirement home and the model of grandparents who did the same. I am daughter, mother of two (and two steps), grandmother of 9 and two on the way (including steps). . .sister, aunt, friend.

It is much easier if the parents (speaking of myself, now) are proactive in looking ahead as to where they want to be--close to which children (if any), or, at the very least, close to a major airport for ease of visiting.

Mother is looking ahead to moving into health care when her Alzheimer's advances--she is still able to play bridge, which is one of our joint markers--but it is clearly progressing. She KNOWS this move will be easier if SHE makes the decision and we monitor and discuss this on a regular basis.

I urge you all to take the plunge with your parents and discuss these issues--out of love and discussing these issues BEFORE there is a crisis--either health or financial. . .and encourage early purchase of long-term healthcare insurance. I told my children this was part of their inheritance--knowing they would not have major end-of-life expenses on my behalf.

Hang in there with your parents--as our very large group approaches retirement, there will be more kinds of alternatives--to meet the needs--and yes, many of us will seek part-time employment or will continue to work longer than anticipated.

Retirement is not what we planned--for those who carefully set aside funds, they may be half what was projected--but we will keep on and find a way--hopefully WITH our children!


5:02 PM  
Blogger MojoMom said...

The generational sandwich really "stacks up," doesn't it? We are all in this together and I wish you the best.

7:44 PM  

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