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Caregiving In Your Future? Magic 8 Ball Says: “Signs Point To Yes”

Jean Chatzky  |  May 7, 2021

Five steps to chart your way to parental caregiving in your future with as much certainty and as little stress as possible.

Today, let’s flip the script. All week we’ve been focused on your relationships — financial and otherwise — with your children. Now, let’s turn to you in your role as an adult child of parents who, let’s face it, are getting older. And they aren’t the only adults you may be caring for, with caregiving in your future. 

According to data from the National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP, today some 53 million adults in the US are caregivers for someone over the age of 18, or a child with special needs, up from 43.5 million in 2015. Most of those caregivers are women. Many are moms. In fact, according to caregiver.org, the typical caregiver (as if there were such a thing) is a 49-year-old woman providing 20 hours a week of unpaid care for her 69-year-old mom. The pandemic has only exacerbated the situation. As research from Fidelity Investments shows, nearly 4 in 10 working women have considered leaving the workforce or cutting their hours due to increased caregiving responsibilities, remote schooling and other unpaid labor. 

Let’s be blunt. Caregiving is the work of angels, and caregiving is in your future. It’s stressful, exhausting and, yes, rewarding. And sometimes, the need takes us by surprise — but it doesn’t always have to. As caregiving experts note, the time to start to wrap your hands around your responsibility is preferably before you step into the arena. That means you’ll need to acknowledge the rising likelihood that as a daughter/daughter-in-law/sister/niece/friend,  you may very well become a caregiver in the years ahead. It also means spending time now readying yourself for what’s coming. So, how do you do that? 

Start With A Conversation (Or Three) About Future Caregiving

This, explains Meredith Stoddard, vice president of life events planning at Fidelity, is the most important step — bar none. “In prior generations, there were a lot of hierarchical parent/child discussions, and a lot of beliefs that this [information] is private,” she says. Fortunately, things have gotten a little easier, which is not to say they are easy. “There is a lot of emotion wrapped up in these conversations — control issues, fear of death, all of those things come into play.” So how do you approach them? 

Try to ask — and, eventually, get answers to the following questions: What are your wishes? What are your fears? What plans have you made? Where is everything held? And how can I help? And note, it may take more than one conversation before you get anything close to the answers you need. Even Stoddard had to ask the questions four or five times before she could get her father to open up. 

Insert Yourself In The Loop Gradually

As if having these conversations about future caregiving wasn’t difficult enough, they lead to making decisions about if and when it’s appropriate for you — or perhaps a sibling or someone else — to start playing a more participatory role in your parent’s finances. Ideally, the best time to do this is before you have to. But that may feel invasive to one or both parties. How do you deal? One way to think about it, she suggests, is the difference between a view, a voice and a vote. Perhaps you get added to an account or two to start. For a while, the aging family member maintains their voice and vote in what happens there, with the younger caregiver looking just to get a view into the conversation. Over time, the voice of the caregiver will be amplified, and the vote switches, but by then you understand their priorities and how they like to do things. 

Document, Document, Document

It’s one thing to know your parent’s wishes — it’s another to be able to fulfill them. But you won’t be able to do the latter unless you are legally empowered to do so. That means making sure that there is a will, a healthcare proxy (which names someone else to make medical decisions), durable power of attorney (which names someone else to make financial ones) and living will (which tells a hospital whether or not you want life support) in place. Having access to the passwords (or at least the password manager, a lifesaver in these situations) is another must. Since COVID, eldercare attorney Martin Schenkman has started inserting a paragraph in all of his client’s documents that allows signatures to be affixed electronically and communications to happen on Zoom and other online portals. He acknowledges they haven’t been tested to date, but believes they will be even more important in years to come.

Weigh The Impact On Your Psyche And Your Finances

It’s one thing to talk about plans should your parents or other loved ones need care. It’s something else to decide to become the caregiver yourself. Before you do, there are two things to consider.  First, what are your own wishes and fears around caregiving?  “Are there cultural expectations, and do they line up with your expectations?” Stoddard asks. The second thing to explore is the financial impact. When you step out of the workforce, you don’t just lose your current salary — you lose future pay increases, retirement contributions,  Social Security credits, the ability to network and, when you do re-enter, it will likely be at a lower salary than the one you left. (This cost of leaving the workforce calculator can help determine the impact.) Of course, none of those numbers mean you shouldn’t make the choice to be a caregiver if that’s what you want to do.  But it’s important to know what they are. 

In Any Case, Don’t Wait To Begin

Finally, whether you are pulling together a plan to help your parents — or even thinking about the steps you should be taking to secure your own situation of caregiving in your future — it is tough to even find an argument for putting it off. Yet most people do. “Even though 90% of people think it’s important to have these conversations, very few actually do,” Stoddard says. If you need a nudge into the here and now, consider this study from the National Institutes of Health that notes financial decision-making ability peaks in your 50s. (53, to be exact.) “As one of my predecessors said,” she relays, “’It’s always too soon, until it’s too late.’” 

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