Sandwich generation

A resident of a retirement center refuses a glass of water.

TEXT OF STORY

KAI RYSSDAL: This is Marketplace Money from American Public Media. I'm Kai Ryssdal. You've got the baby boomers, and now the sandwich generation. People take care of their kids and their elderly parents at the same time. In fact, one out of every three American workers care for an elderly family member, and some of them are leaving their jobs to do it full time. In the short-term, it saves thousands of dollars in nursing home bills. But in the long term, the loss of wages can be enough to make you sick. From the Marketplace work and family desk, Apryl Lundsten has the story.

APRYL LUNDSTEN: When Pam Schultz's mother had a stroke a year and a half ago, SCHULTZ gave up everything to take care of her. She quit her hotel management job at a Best Western, moved from Michigan to Palmdale, California, and left her two grown sons and three grandchildren behind.

PAM SCHULTZ: It was really difficult to make that decision to come here, but I decided, and my son's agreed, that Granny needs you.

She could've taken another part-time job at a Best Western in California, but her mother needed her full-time care. So Schultz moved in with her. She is one of millions caring for elderly parents. Ellen Galinski is President of the Families and Work Institute, a research center on the changing family and workforce. She says two-thirds of the caregivers are women, but the number of male caregivers is growing.

ELLEN GALINSKI: And on average, these caregivers, the ones who aren't employed, are providing 21 hours of care or more.

That's every week. They're doing it themselves because help is just too expensive. Lynn Friss Feinberg is the Deputy Director of the National Center on Care Giving. She says homecare aides charge anywhere from $9 to $20 an hour, but that's cheap compared to a nursing home.

LYNN FRISS FEINBERG: The average cost of a semi-private room at a nursing home in 2005 was $64,000 a year, and for a private room, it was $74,000 a year. Now who can afford that?

Schultz can't. She moved in with her mom and they live off her mother's Social Security, around $1200 a month. Schultz often visits the local food bank to get staples like canned fruit and milk.

PAM SCHULTZ: It seems like we kind of go in the red a lot if times, or go without.

Ellen Galinski understands.

GALINSKI: A study that was done several years ago found that a sizeable proportion of these families went into bankruptcy over caring for their families. It's a wonderful thing to care for an elderly parent or relative, but it's tragic that it puts the family into bankruptcy, in some cases if they're lower wage.

One problem is that Medicare won't cover the very illnesses that afflict the elderly long-term, says Lynn Friss Feinberg.

LYNN FRISS FEINBERG: Contrary to popular belief, Medicare for people that are 65 and over only really pays for hospital care or acute care conditions, not for chronic conditions like Alzheimer's disease or Parkinson's disease.

So how can people care for parents while working? What's required, says Galinski, is a see change in corporate America.

GALINSKI: We need to rethink careers, or jobs in the United States that provide periods of care with periods of working.

But lots of companies aren't really doing that yet. Some, like Johnson and Johnson, Exxon and IBM, offer employees training, like learning how to move or bathe the elderly, and information on support groups and state financial assistance program. IBM does offer a three-year leave of absence and flexible work schedules, but that company is an exception. So families have to depend on each other, and they have to think about eldercare way before they need it. Shawn Herz is Director of Program Development at the Los Angeles Caregiver Resource Center, that helps elderly with brain impairments.

SHAWN HERZ: People don't want to talk about the fact they're going to die, or become infirm or, you know, disabled. However, the first, number one thing is just starting the dialogue. Mom, what are your plans? Do you guys have a will? Is there a durable power of attorney for healthcare? Would you want to be put on life support if something happened to you?

Galinski agrees, and says folks should also consider financial planning, like long-term care insurance. But for many people, elder care needs happen suddenly. SCHULTZ said she tried to set money aside in advance, but it went quickly. So what's helped her most is her support group.

SCHULTZ: In those support groups, you hear other people talk about what has happened in their life. So it prepares you and helps you see how you can handle that situation before it's right there facing you.

And even though it's been tough, SCHULTZ says the sacrifices are worth it. Taking care of her mother is the most rewarding job she's ever had.

SCHULTZ: OK, mom, it's time for lunch. Here's your soup.

SCHULTZ'S MOTHER: OK.

SCHULTZ: And I got you a glass of milk, okay?

MOTHER: OK, thank you very much.

In Los Angeles, I'm Apryl Lundsten for Marketplace Money.

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