The cost of taking care of mom and dad

A physical therapy aid, helps William Rexroat, a WWII Navy veteran exercise during a physical therapy session at the Quincy Veterans Home in Quincy, Ill.

Ann Sohmer, left, with daughter Robin.

Adriene Hill: When it comes to taking care of elderly parents, you can have them move in with you. Someone can come to their house and help out. There are assisted-living facilities. Or, if they need a whole lot of help, nursing homes.

But most of these options aren't cheap. Assisted living costs about $40,000 a year, a nursing home about twice that. And this week, I thought we'd go check out what that money bought. So I headed up the road to Pasadena, where I meet 90-year-old Ann Sohmer and her daughter Robin at the Pasadena Highlands assisted-living facility.

Hill: Do you mind showing me around the apartment? I don't know whose...

Robin Sohmer: So we have this terrace that she never goes out on...

Ann's got a bedroom, a bathroom. It's simply furnished, a needlepoint on the wall that she did years ago, photos of the family.

Ann Sohmer And Robin is there. You see that picture in the corner there? With Robin in full costume...

And Ann shows me one of her dearest possessions, a coffee table that's moved with her from New York to Florida and now to California.

Ann: I have a very affectionate feeling for this table. It made me feel at home.

But making the move into this new home wasn't an easy decision; it took years of talking -- and an accident.

Ann: I was driving and unfortunately, my foot went on the gas pedal instead of the brake. And I was going to a beauty parlor, and I drove into the glass window of a store that was empty, thank goodness. And I realized that driving is not for me anymore and that sort of did it for me, and I realized I couldn't stay there.

Ann went to the hospital. She wasn't hurt. But, she says, she knew she couldn't be alone. So she decided to move to California to a facility that could help take care of her.

Here she gets assistance with the basics: Medicine, bathing, the meals are taken care of. And she's close to her daughter Robin.

Robin: She was calling it "the place" for a while -- "I have to go back to 'the place' now." You know, it wasn't here apartment, it wasn't home. So slowly, you've started...

Ann: It took me a while to get adjusted, it was a big move.

Ann gets Social Security and is eligible for veterans benefits to help pay some of the costs. She has savings. A condo she's trying to sell in Florida. With all of that, Robin says they can probably, maybe, afford about five years here.

Robin: If my mother had come here sooner and wanted to live in assisted living sooner than now, I'm not sure financially how we would have pulled it off. Just looking at years and years of paying it, it's exorbitant. It's very high. But it provides an independence that's really important to people.

If the money runs out, Robin and Ann say they'll figure it out -- somehow.

Ann: I would depend on my children, but I wouldn't want to.

Hill: Why not?

Ann: Because I think that they have their own life to live and it's not fair to put a burden on them at this point.

Hill: But they put a burden on you at some point, you raised them.

Ann: That's true. However, if I can deal with my finances as I have up until now. Then it shouldn't be too hard. If I needed help, I'm sure they would help me.

Ann and Robin are lucky. A lot of people don't have a plan or a way to pay for these things. And adult children wind up in a situation where they have to budget fast.

John Lansing: It's incredibly difficult for people because it's usually precipitated by a crisis.

John Lansing is an elder care attorney in Pasadena.

Lansing: So they're already in a state of shock and emotional trauma, because they're usually coming from the neurologist office where they just found out that mom has Parkinson's disease. Or they are coming from rehab center where dad's been transferred after just having a stroke. So they are already completely stressed out and anxious and worried about everything. So it's hard to settle down and talk about money.

He says once you do start talking money, you start talking big numbers. Really big numbers.

Hill: In a dream world where I could just have an account with enough money so that when I got very old, I could be sure it wasn't straining my kids, what would that mean?

Lansing: Half a million dollars.

Hill: Really?

Lansing: Yeah, if you figure that the cost of care for a nursing home is at least $100,000 a year. Then a half million dollars is a conservative estimate.

To be clear, nursing homes are the most expensive long-term care, and not every nursing home costs 100 grand a year. The national average is closer to $80,000. John says Medicaid can help pay, once savings accounts have been drained. There are also other government programs, but often the cost falls to families.

John Lansing's own mom got sick when he was in law school. So sick that she needed long-term care.

Lansing: It cost her every penny she had. And whatever I could find and whatever I could beg, borrow or steal. Because you'll find that if you're ever in this position, you just cobble together a solution. Whatever works.

Hill: And where did you beg, borrow and steal from?

Lansing: I switched from the day program to the evening program at school. For a while, I had a day job. I borrowed from a family member, money that is more of a gift than a loan. And just did what I could.

Assisted-living facilities and other kinds of elder care just aren't affordable to many families, no matter how much begging, and borrowing and stealing they do.

The government estimates nearly 40 million people spend some amount of time taking care of an elderly relative or friend, without getting paid for it.

Back in Pasadena, Ann Sohmer didn't want to move in with her daughters. She's proud to be able to pay for this place and likes feeling independent.

Ann: I'm free to do whatever I want to. I don't have to answer to anybody. And I also have the luxury of having family here as well.

All of these arrangements, in home and out of the home, put emotional stresses on families. But they also create new relationships with people in the new community and with people you've known, in some cases, your whole life. Ann and Robin seem to be navigating well.

Ann: It changed my relationship in that Robin is taking care of me more than the other way around.

Hill: And how does that feel?

Ann: It feels great. I'm the daughter and she's the mother. It's a funny feeling, really, but it's true. That Robin is... She's responsible for me. She does so many things for me, she really does.

Hill: Do you ever say "I'm the mom, absolutely not"?

Ann: No. Because I know she has my interests at heart. And I wouldn't want it any other way.

About the author

Adriene Hill is the senior multimedia reporter for LearningCurve.

Ann Sohmer, left, with daughter Robin.

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