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The cost of caring for elderly parents

Marketplace Staff Oct 3, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: It’s been a big year for baby boomers. They started turning the big 6-0 in 0-6. That means lots of tough choices. To take Social Security payments early, or not. Where to retire. And how to take care of their parents. Studies show about one out of every three workers in this country is currently caring for an elderly family member. From the Marketplace Work and Family desk, Apryl Lundsten has more.

PAM SCHULTZ: OK, Mama. It’s time for lunch. Here’s your soup.


SCHULTZ: OK? And I got you a glass of milk. OK?

MOM: OK. Thank you, very much.

APRYL LUNDSTEN: A year and a half ago Pam Schultz’s mother suffered two strokes. The Best Western in Northern Michigan, where she worked as a manager, offered her flexible hours so she could care for her mother. But her mother lived in California. So, Schultz sold everything and left behind two grown sons and three grandchildren to move in with her mother.

SCHULTZ: It was really difficult to make that decision to come here. But I decided and my sons agreed that Granny needs you.

Schultz now spends 24/7 taking care of her mother, who can’t be left alone even for a few minutes.

SCHULTZ: I made a trip to the post office a couple days ago and when I came home she was on the floor.

Pam Schultz fits the demographic of a typical family caregiver to a T: she’s in her 50s, a woman, and taking care of her 81-year-old mother. Hard numbers don’t exist on how many people quit their jobs to care for parents. But studies show that family caregivers spend from 11 to 20 hours a week. Middle- and lower-income folks, like Schultz, are financially most affected. Many could use company support of some kind.

ELLEN GALINSKY: A study that was done several years ago found that a sizable 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 a family into bankruptcy in some cases if they’re lower wage.

That’s Ellen Galinsky. She’s President of the Families and Work Institute, a nonprofit center for research on the changing family and workforce. Galinsky and other experts say when you look at the numbers, it’s easy to see why lots of families can’t afford eldercare.

Lynn Frist Feinberg is deputy director of another nonprofit called the National Center on Caregiving. She says private aides can cost up to $20 an hour and private nursing homes are out of sight.

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

Pam Schultz can’t. Quitting her job made more sense than spending that kind of money.

SCHULTZ: Seems like we kinda go in the red a lot of times, or go without.

But even those who are OK financially are making big sacrifices. Gayle Hopkins was forced to decide between staying in Los Angeles with her husband and continuing work as a speech pathologist or moving to Colorado to take care of her father. She’s choosing her father.

HOPKINS: My mother died two years ago. My father was living alone in the condo. And my father has macular degeneration so he can’t see that well. And he’s also having some physical ailments. My plan is not to come back to California at this point.

How does Hopkins’ husband, Steve Lamy, feel about her decision?

STEVE LAMY: It isn’t a situation that I would choose to live in, but I think it’s one of the realities that we have to face as our parents get older. I wouldn’t ask her to not do it. . . I think it’s my responsibility to say “OK, let’s make this happen.”

Lamy is a professor of international studies at the University of Southern California. He’ll take a one-year sabbatical to be with Gayle while he considers his options. But for people who don’t have that kind of flexibility, it helps if they work for a big company with eldercare policies. IBM, for example, offers a three-year leave of absence and a flexible work schedule.

MARIA FERRIS: For us, it’s clearly a talent issue. And if employees are worried or distracted about their elders, then they’re not going to be focused on our business and our customers.

That’s Maria Ferris, an IBM H.R. manager. She says today one out of every four employees tell the company they have a problem with eldercare. Another third expect to in the next five years.

IBM, Johnson and Johnson, Exxon and other big companies are collaborating on eldercare policies and assistance. But workplace expert Ellen Galinsky says most middle-sized and small companies can’t afford to offer programs like these.

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

Still, both Schultz and Hopkins say the sacrifices are worth it. Shultz says taking care of her mother is the most rewarding job she’s ever had.

In Los Angeles, I’m Apryl Lundsten for Marketplace.

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