My friend Charles and I are not alone. We were the primary caregivers for our respective parents. I had sibling help — my sister Kay was my much-valued tag-team caregiver. Charles, though, is an only child.
Charles is six months older than I; we’ve been friends since his sixth birthday in January 1957, when my family moved to the Sun Oil camp in Egan, Louisiana. We started school together; we graduated high school together. Our parents ended up buying land and moving houses, living across the street from each other. My mother died in July 1993; his dad died in December that year. He became a full-time caregiver for his mother in 2009 or so. I was part-time caregiver for my dad at that point, but became full-time by 2010.
My point? We were born in 1951. We’re baby boomers. Between 1946-1964 nearly 74 million of us were born. In 2011, the first baby boomers turned 65. We’re living longer. We’re redefining retirement.
We’re also increasingly part-time or full-time caregivers for our parents (or other relatives). According to the MetLife Study of Caregiving (https://www.metlife.com/mmi/research/caregiving-cost-working-caregivers.html#key%20findings), almost 10 million adult children over 50 are now caregivers for aging parents, and the number grows daily.
It’s an interesting study, one well worth spending time with. Lots of statistics there might surprise a reader. Certainly an eye-opener is the financial cost for caregivers: nearly thee trillion dollars in estimated lost wages, pension and Social Security benefits. That’s startling. I was more fortunate than many: I was close enough to live with Dad and commute to work for a number of months before I retired and moved in full-time. I had a flexible job (teaching at university). I had the support system available in the small town I grew up in. My sister lives 3 hours away and was (and is) still working. She was my tag-team partner.
We had no long-term care insurance, but Dad had Medicare and Social Security and no mortgage. Charles’s mother had long-term care insurance that had been beneficial but was eventually not renewable (she had purchased it when it was a new product, and terms have since changed). Her savings and Social Security and Medicare then filled in.
By the time Charles retired, he needed to live with his mother to help defray hired caregivers. As he puts it, he had “the night shift.”
I never got to the point of having to look for hired caregivers — Dad was still mobile, still driving, for quite a while. When he was no longer able to drive to dialysis, I had help from a friend. I was lucky — the caregivers I knew were actually already working, for Charles.
Having friends so close was wonderful. We were (and continue to be) each other’s support system, or at least part of it. We shared stories, suggestions, talked about Home Health care and hospice. We shared mowing equipment. We shared laughter.
In addition, I spent a lot of time on the internet while Dad was sleeping or in dialysis. I read for pleasure, certainly. I played word games like Scrabble or Words with Friends. However, I also searched out what I could find from other caregivers’ stories online.
Many baby boomer children don’t live as close in proximity to their aging parents, and thus have to arrange many things long-distance, relying on others, hired and otherwise. They must take time off from work and travel to their parents’ homes. And if, as is the case, many of them are also caring for their children, they are what are known as “the sandwich generation.” That would be where my sister fits in. I lived 45 minutes away from Dad. While he was working, Charles lived in Houston, several hours away from Egan. Between us, we fit a lot of different descriptions for baby-boomer caregivers.
I still look at websites about caregiving; I still read about it. While I am no longer a caregiver, I still have residual interests and issues that are directly related to it.
Once you’ve been a caregiver, I think, you’re changed, for better or worse. For both, if I’m honest. Certainly there are difficult times, physically, financially, and emotionally. If parents don’t have adequate secondary health insurance in addition to Medicare, their children often pick up financial responsibilities. Second mortgages on homes may result. Savings get tapped into. Searching for various agencies that provide assistance can be frustrating.
Becoming a caregiver is often gradual. Certainly that was my case. My dad was fiercely independent. Even in his 80s, on dialysis, he drove himself three times a week for the three-plus hours that kept him alive. He had stents. He had triple-bypass surgery. And three months after that triple-bypass surgery, he was in a ground deer-blind, with his gun, ready to hunt. He didn’t get anything, but that wasn’t the point. He was determined to keep as much of his life in control as possible.
He knew he was slowing down. His attitude was frankly amazing, though — good-hearted, with humor, and a no-bullshit approach to reality. He didn’t have to like it, and he’d express frustration. As he weakened, he was more vocal about being “useless” when he couldn’t help out with yardwork, or climbing a ladder, or doing something he was used to doing.
He was more forgetful — I began going to doctor’s appointments with him. I had power of attorney. I kept track of medicine. I managed more and more. By the time he was on oxygen and had to carry his tank with him everywhere, I was the driver. I’d drive us to the family farm in East Texas. As I’d drive, we’d talk and laugh if he didn’t nap. It was nice, he admitted, to be the passenger for a change — he got to enjoy the scenery. He’d grin and chuckle – – telling me he had a pretty good chauffeur.
I am only one of millions of baby boomer caregivers. Yet I wonder about what will happen when it’s my turn: I have no children. Some of my friends and I laugh about needing to set up our own commune (yes, you can tell we’re baby boomers!), complete with an on-site nurse. Yet it’s a serious concern, one worth planning for. I don’t have long-term care insurance. I’ve got a defined pension. I’ll have Medicare and my state insurance will become secondary. I’ll have a tiny bit of Social Security (because I worked for Louisiana, which doesn’t contribute to Social Security, I will have my minimum Social Security benefits that I qualify for docked at least 40%). I have a house with no mortgage, and other real estate that I could, if necessary, liquidate. I have an IRA. I’ve bought an annuity. Somehow, I hope, I’ll be able to piece together enough for my own care. And I would be willing to live in a retirement center, if necessary.
That’s long-term, I hope. Dad was not quite 90 when he died. His older sister is 92 now, and still lives alone. Their last aunt died in 2010, nearly 105 years old. She lived by herself until her 99th year.
I hope that I can approach my life (and my death) with the fortitude, honesty, and attitude that my dad did. With the patience and lack of complaint that my mother did. That would be honoring them and their examples.
And I hope I can continue to laugh, as they did, almost to the end. Oh, and dance around the house (even if it’s more like shuffling after awhile) while I clean house or cook — listening to music and singing — as my grandmother did.
Pretty amazing examples, when I think of it.
Time for some music, I think.