Aging Parents and the Cost of Worry

Last Updated Apr 21, 2010 11:05 AM EDT

I worry about my mother. All my friends fret about their parents. It comes with the age, I suppose - ours and theirs. Plus, my generation is predisposed to worrying. We learned it from our folks.

This week, my mom needs a new roof. More accurately, her house needs a new roof - a new roof on a 1960s split level. What are we talking? $3,000? $5,000? I have no idea. All I want is the job done right, by someone reputable, so she never again has to lie in her bed and wonder about those yellow water stains spreading across her ceiling.

Unfortunately, what you do when you're in your late 60s and you need a new roof is a little different from what you do if you're in your 20s or 30s and you need a new roof. If you're my mom, you can afford the new roof. It's finding the right person for the job that feels like a bewildering obstacle. Where to begin?

If you're in your 30s, you put a self-deprecating status update on Facebook: Ceiling crumbling onto my bedspread. Can anyone suggest a roofer? Within minutes, you've got at least five names to call. Of course, you can't afford the roof, but that's another issue.

My mother and I started talking about the project. Thankfully, she has a solid network of trusted friends and service people and service people who are friends. That kind of support system is what develops when you've lived 38 years in the same house. (The roof of which, to our knowledge, has only been replaced once.) But her network is not available at a keystroke. She's got to call them.

I call her electrician; she calls her plumber. They offer some names. The hitch is: I live 5 hours from my mother; my siblings are both 3 hours away from her. We help Mom on projects like this as best we can from long distance or on the weekends we're home visiting. Concerns abound: Will this roofer leave nails in her flower beds? Should we be making more calls and asking for more bids to make sure she's getting a good deal? Will a contractor see a senior citizen living alone and do something unscrupulous?

I've talked about the worry with my friends, some of whom have sick parents living 3,000 miles away. When it's a roof, the uncertainty feels like a small kernel in the pit of the stomach. When it's a health care issue, the anxiety feels more like a potato in the gut.

I've been wondering if you can put a price tag on the worrying. Tally the hours of work that 30-something 'kids' miss to be with their folks, meeting with doctors, lawyers, contractors. Add in the cost of traveling back and forth, as well as the time sitting in traffic or waiting on a tarmac. On the other side of the ledger, at least for my mother, is the pleasure she derives from living in a small town with the same people she's known for almost four decades. Uproot her now, and what would that cost her?

So for now, status quo. She'll get a new roof; her kids get the kernel. At least it's not a potato. This week.

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