The High Cost of Raising Your Parents

Last Updated Aug 4, 2011 10:07 AM EDT

I went on a tour of an assisted living place two weeks ago, and the first question out of the marketing director's mouth was: "What kind of monthly income does your relative have?" Honestly, we hadn't even made it out of the reception area yet before those words tumbled from her lips.

My relative will not be going there.

But maybe I shouldn't have been surprised. Money comes into play in virtually every decision families and seniors make these days. The cost of facilities like the one I was touring range from $3,000 up to $6,000 a month. So in a way, it's a fair question (though "Hi, How are you?" might have been a better place to start), because why waste everyone's time if the senior can't afford to live there?

Those costs go a long way to explaining a report the AARP released on July 18, which values the unpaid work family members do caring for their parents or other elderly relatives at $450 billion in the U.S.

Cheryl Mathieu, Ph.D., a geriatric care manager in Long Beach, California, says it costs about $200 per day for someone who needs 24-hour care at home. That's $73,000 in a year. Yeesh. No wonder so many family members are taking on all or some of the care themselves, because very few seniors and their families are set up to absorb these costs. "When you're talking about the options for Mom and Dad, almost the first question is about how much money they have," Mathieu says. "Do they have $200 a day to keep them at home?

But here's a smaller stressor that's rarely talked about: Years before the elderly adult requires that $200-a-day kind of care, a financial burden hits families. It seems like small potatoes: gas money for more frequent visits, the prescription copays that a hassled adult child shells out to save a few minutes at CVS, the hours in lost productivity from leaving work to take an aunt or an uncle to a doctor's appointment, the babysitter they have to hire to watch their kids during that time. But as those expenditures pile up, they take a bite out of the family budget -- often to the tune of several thousand dollars a year.

No child wants to say to the parents who raised him and put him through college, "Hey, Mom and Dad, can you reimburse me for the $27 I spent on your groceries this week?"

An equally touchy problem? Getting elderly relatives to spend money on themselves. This is before the major health struggles set in, when they need assistance with light housekeeping, errands or cooking. It's often a losing battle to get them to shell out $20 per hour to hire someone do the chores they used to manage perfectly well on their own.

"Ninety-five percent of people don't want to pay for things," Mathieu says. "A lot of times they feel like if they give up independence in one area, it's downhill from there. It's a loss of independence, loss of control. And they have a lot of pride. It sometimes helps if the adult child says, 'I know you don't need help, but can you just do it for me so I can sleep at night?'"

Geriatric care managers like Mathieu often get called in after a major life event, like a bad fall at home or a hospitalization, when there's no question that the senior needs help. Turns out all of us -- adult children and the seniors they look after -- could use more help navigating the gray areas that arise before then.

Photo courtesy Flickr user Thirteen of Clubs, CC 2.0
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