Caring for Aging Parents (written May 2013)

This month’s post will take a break from market commentary and recaps of the ever changing discussions in Washington, D.C. that might affect your pocket book.

Instead, I’d like to discuss a personal financial planning issue that touches many of us: caring for an aging parent, financially and otherwise. I’ll share some personal experience on this, as well as some articles with  links to resources in case they may help you or your family.

Caring for Aging Parents: Articles and Resources

This is a topic that it is easy to objective about until it involves your own family. One’s personal family history becomes intertwined with big decisions regarding care and finances as parents progress into true old age. As a friend of mine puts it, care giving is the price we pay for the pleasure of having them with us so long.

There are many excellent articles on how to proceed on this journey, and a journey it is indeed. For example, the Wall Street Journal recently wrote about how to work with siblings athttp://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887323820304578412811508678152.html?KEYWORDS=When+it%27s+time+to+huddle.

Last year, the Journal featured two other articles with links to additional resources:
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204846304578090902368296318.html
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703503804575083992265508012.html

These listings are hardly all-inclusive in scope, and each community, family and disease process is different. For example, in helping my mother deal with my father’s long ordeal with Alzheimer’s, we found the local Council on Aging enormously helpful, as they found her a low-cost respite care program. This was vital, as I neither my sister nor I lived nearby to help.

In addition, the Alzheimer’s Association (http://www.alz.org/) linked her to a support group. As stoic as my mother has always been, even she eventually went to share experiences and find out how others were dealing with their loved ones.

But Now it is Mom’s Turn

As in many families, my mother was younger than my father (in her case, by nine years). So she cared for him until his death at age 89. She shouldered this burden herself, which was frightening as his disease progressed. He was still physically vigorous, and as many Alzheimer’s people do, he became combative as the disease progressed. The statistics say that approximately 30% of caregivers predecease their spouses who have Alzheimer’s, due to the stress of care giving and their own advancing age. I was afraid my mother could become a statistic, as she refused to put Dad in institutional care. Of course, this alarmed me considerably, but after much discussion, I made peace with the fact that this was her spouse, her decision, and that my job was to find her as much support as I could. When Dad did pass, mom and I discussed that in these life situations, how does one define “success?” In this case, I think she should be proud that she cared for him herself until other ailments hospitalized him for the last few weeks of his life.

My sister and I were relieved that she survived the ordeal, although it was followed by intense mourning for my father. And she amazed us by remaining extremely capable and independent well into her 80s. She continued to run her house, mow the lawn, invest in the stock market, read voraciously, garden, etc. She has been amazingly independent. I continued the daily calls which had begun during my father’s illness, and I savored the talks we had. A dear friend of mine has checked in on her at least weekly for some time now.

As she edges closer to age 90, she has slowed noticeably in the last year. I have been waiting and watching, offering repeatedly to help her move closer. She always refused the offer, although in the last year, she was beginning to consider it. She began to repeat herself, have some memory lapses. She works harder to do things like balance the checkbook. I have done her taxes for a while, and this year the signal came that we are in a different phase. For the first time, some 1099s were missing, and she seemed confused about it. I filed for an extension and went out to see how she was doing. I had asked the fund company to send out the information a second time, which they were reluctant to do, but complied with given the situation. When I got to mom’s house, I eventually found that 1099, along with a bill, tucked under a place mat and forgotten.

I’ve learned not to be confrontational about such things. People know they are declining, so there is no need to press. Instead, I have learned to offer to help. Would she like it if I took this burden off her shoulders? Before arriving, I had found out that I could ask my mother to permit me to be her agent for her financial affairs. This would allow me to consolidate her finances all in one place. Mom was relieved to let it go at this point. We filled out the forms, searched for any stock certificates that might be in the safe deposit and got the arrangements made. And I finished the taxes.

I don’t think this transition would have been this smooth if our family hadn’t always been open about things financial. When I was a young adult and on my own, my parents and I made arrangements like being co-signers on safe deposit boxes, making out power of attorneys for each other, etc. I was unmarried at that point, so I needed the back up. In their case, they were retired and felt it was prudent just in case. My sister was married and much further away geographically, so she was not included in this process, but for practical reasons rather than anything personal.

My mother had also always enjoyed reading economics and finance along with many other things throughout her lifetime. So as I entered a career in finance, we had many conversations about what was happening in the economy and the world (that is one of the benefits of an interest in “the dismal science”—it truly is a window on the world). When she acquired a small inheritance from her parents (her share of the dairy farm they had run through the Depression), she invested. Some ideas were hers, some we shared. She did very well, especially for someone largely self-taught. But then she had always been bright. She had graduated from high school by age 16, was pre-med until money ran out in the Depression, and then worked as a drafter on plans for bomber planes in World War II. She even had plans at one point to take flying lessons. Then she married my father, all the men came home from the war, and the fifties happened. She took on her role at home faithfully, but did not get the opportunity to return to school. She was always the practical one who could stretch a dollar a bit further, and figure out a way to get my sister and me through private college, debt-free. She played that lynch-pin role in the family.

But now we must play that role for her. So far, our family plan has been for my sister, now widowed and retired,  to move back to our home town. She will be there to help, but mom is still independent in her own home at this point. I have taken over the finances. The agency arrangement takes care of her stocks and mutual funds. Mom felt OK taking care of her banking, but on a prior trip we had arranged on-line banking, so that I can tell if bills are getting paid. She just lets her CDs roll over at the local banks, as she has enough to live on without shopping around for the best rate. This is perhaps not optimal, but it lets her feel she has enough control of finances. The power of attorney is still there just in case. So far, my sister is offering mostly transportation and company as her care giving. But as mom’s aging progresses, I can tell we will return to the local resources I have researched in the past. We may need to call a geriatric care specialist and establish a way for my mother’s doctor to communicate with my sister (necessary with privacy laws).

The goal is for mom to remain as independent as she can as long as she can. And aside from the practical issues, the main goal will be to gather as a family as often as possible.