Caring for aging parents - what's a working woman to do?

At some point in our lives, it’s likely that we will become caregivers to an aging parent, a spouse or partner, or a family member . Here are some caregiving basics that may surprise you.

  • Caregivers provide $470 Billion in unpaid care
  • 2 of 5 Americans are caregivers
  • 60% of caregivers are women
  • 6 in 10 caregivers are employed
  • Caregivers spend an average of $6,954 for out of pocket expenses ($11,923 for long-distance care)

The Caregiving Experience: The Long Road Ahead

We often fall into the role of caregiver and don’t realize it at first. I like to call it “caregiver creep.” We get a call that Dad tripped and broke his hip, and needs help once he’s discharged from the hospital. Or it’s the second or third time that Mom got lost on her way home--early warning sign of Alzheimer’s disease or other dementia. As a result, caregiving responsibilities begin to increase almost imperceptibly until we are knee deep into them. We might just be helping out at first, but gradually we find ourselves accompanying parents to doctor’s appointments, buying groceries and supplies, managing and paying hospital bills and even doing hands on care.

Caregiving's Impact on Women

It’s been said that caregiving is a women’s issue. Not to shortchange men, who are stepping up to provide care, but women historically have taken on that role. While others may help out, there is generally one primary caregiver---and that caregiver is usually a women. Women especially need to be prepared for the caregiver role for the hidden costs can have a big impact on their retirement security. Here’s why.

  • Women live longer then men, and need to make their money last
  • Women are more likely to drop in and out of the workforce to care for children or aging parents, which impacts their careers and finances
  • Women’s lifetime earnings overall are less than men’s
  • Women are more likely to be widows, live alone and age by themselves
  • Women are generally the first to provide care to their spouse/partner and then find that they have no one to care for them
  • Women who care for an aging spouse may have spent down family assets

Women and Work

Working women in particular may find the caregiving role particularly challenging. Studies have found that 60% of employed caregivers make workplace adjustments that can impact their careers and earnings, and their employers’ bottom line. These adjustments include workday interruptions such as phone calls to deal with unexpected problems or to make arrangements for parents’ health care. Or they may include coming to work late or leaving early to handle a crisis, drive a parent to the doctor or wait for a home care worker who was unable to get to the house on time. More significant adjustments that caregivers make are things like reducing their workday or going from full to part time work (with salary implications), taking a leave of absence, giving up promotions or retiring early. If caregivers have young children or teens in the household—the sandwich generation--the stress can be even greater. It’s not uncommon for caregivers, who are stretched to the limit already, to neglect their own health, skipping medical appointments and not taking time to care for themselves.

It’s not surprising to me that women tend to be the ones to make these workplace adjustments. Women seem to believe they should “do it all”---without realizing the toll that it can take emotionally and physically. And they rarely think of the financial ramifications that can result.

How Can Women Prepare?

Nothing is certain in life, but based on the facts above, the odds are that most women will take on the role of caregiver, throw themselves into it and do it willingly—but perhaps at some cost to their own well-being. Whether caregiving is in the distant future, or whether the journey has just started or is not far away, women would do themselves a favor by beginning to plan for it. They should think through what caregiving would mean to their personal, professional and financial future. Here are some questions they might ask themselves.

  • Would they be willing to cut back on their work or leave the workforce to provide care?
  • What would the financial implications be if they had to stop working, or if they had to pay out of pocket for care?
  • Would they get help and support from their spouse, siblings, adult children and others?
  • How much would they have to pay for their spouse’s or parents’ expenses or even long-term care services?
  • What are their spouse or parents’ expectations should they need care?
  • Do their parents (or spouse) have long-term care insurance and if not, are they young and healthy enough to get it?
  • Are they willing to be a caregiver and what does that really mean?

For financial service professionals, a long-term care discussion would be incomplete without including caregiving as part of it.. Addressing the personal and financial implications of providing care during the long-term care planning process will provide a more complete and very valuable service to clients.

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