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Can You Afford to Become a Caregiver?

A new study details the heavy financial risks of leaving your job to take on caregiving

By Winnie Yu | July 10, 2012

When Nancy Wurtzel moved back home to Sauk Centre, Minn., to take care of her mother last November, she didn’t give much thought to her own future. She just knew that the 91-year-old had dementia and needed her help. “Mom can no longer cook, shop, pay bills or do any real problem-solving,” says Wurtzel, 56, a divorced mother who had been running her own public relations firm in Westlake Village, Calif. “But my goal is to keep her in her apartment in an independent living senior facility as long as possible.”
 
At first, Wurtzel was able to take on some assignments while she cared for her mother. But when her mom’s health worsened, it became a struggle. “Deadlines are often short and clients don't understand when I must take my mother to the doctor or spend huge chunks of time with her when she is ill,” Wurtzel says. “Thankfully, her health has stabilized, but my PR work has dried up."

The lack of business has made Wurtzel uneasy about her future. She's using her own savings to buy necessities for herself and her mother, while still helping her 19-year old daughter pay for her final year of college. But with only limited retirement funds stashed away, Wurtzel wonders if she’ll have enough money to live on down the road, and whether she’ll ever work again. (Learn more about how to care for your parents without losing your job, and what employers can do to support caregiving workers.)
 
Caregivers Giving Up Trillions

Nearly 10 million adults over age 50 care for their parents full- or part-time in the United States, and many of them don't realize what it's costing them. According to The MetLife Study of Caregiving Costs to Working Caregivers — Double Jeopardy for Baby Boomers Caring for Their Parents, a recent study by the National Alliance for Caregiving and the MetLife Mature Market Institute, caregivers sacrifice nearly $3 trillion in total wages, pension funds and Social Security benefits. Each woman who leaves the work force or scales back her career to care for a parent forfeits more than $324,000 in wages and Social Security benefits, while each man who does so leaves almost $304,000 on the table. (Women are more likely than men to leave the work force to become caregivers.)
 
Most caregivers are thrust into the role during a crisis, and have little time to consider their own future finances, says Gail Hunt, president and chief executive of the National Alliance for Caregiving. “In desperation, a caregiver will sometimes just quit her job,” Hunt says, without considering the hit to her income. “Or they do think about their finances, but they make the decision that it’s more important to take care of Dad than it is to worry about retirement.”
 
Many caregivers, especially women, come to realize that re-entering the work force is tougher than they'd imagined. “If you’re a woman, you will take a bigger hit,” Hunt says. “Women have salaries that are typically lower than men's, and they stay out of the workforce longer. They will have more difficulty getting back to the same level of job when they’re finished with their caregiving.”
 
What to Consider
 
In a perfect world, we’d all have money set aside for retirement and an emergency, like a caregiving crisis. In reality, few of us have those resources, which is why, if you even think that full- or part-time caregiving may be in your future, you should start evaluating now how you can finance it. Here are some key factors to consider:

  • Your pension. Talk to your company’s human resources department to find out how much your pension is worth, whether you're vested, and how leaving the company might affect your pension.
  • Your savings. According to a separate study by the NAC, most caregivers wind up spending an average of $5,531 of their own money on caregiving expenses each year, from groceries and toiletries to medications and assistive devices. Factor these costs into your calculations.
  • Your options. Consult a geriatric social worker or care manager before deciding to leave your job to become a caregiver, says Cindy Hounsell, president and founder of the Women’s Institute for a Secure Retirement. An expert can present you with cost-effective options you may not have considered — like adult day service centers, home-monitoring technology, or in-home caregiver services — that could help your parent continue to stay in his or her home, and relieve your burden so you can maintain your job at least part-time.
  • Your rights. Under the federal Family Medical Leave Act, companies with more than 50 employees are required to provide 12 weeks of unpaid leave every year for workers who need to take care of a sick parent. Some companies may also let you work part-time or offer you flexible hours.
  • Your marketability. You should begin planning your career re-entry strategy before you leave your desk, says John Migliaccio, director of research for MetLife Mature Market Institute. Research ways to maintain your job skills through online seminars. Plan to attend networking events and stay in touch with people in your industry, and schedule lunches with colleagues.
  • Your family. If you’re taking on the role of lead or sole caregiver, talk to your siblings and other relatives about financial support to cover your parent's expenses, or your time. Consider creating a contract that allows you to be paid by your family as an independent contractor. (Learn more about sharing family caregiving costs here.)
  • Your health. Adult children caring for aging parents are more likely to be in poor health, and to suffer from stress, than non-caregiving peers. Another recent study from NAC details how the health of caregivers for parents with Alzheimer's disease is particularly at risk. If your health declines, getting back into the work force can be especially difficult, Hunt says. Many caregivers have been found to become lax when it comes to regular checkups and important preventive steps like mammograms, Pap tests, prostate exams and flu shots. As you embark on the caregiving path, be proactive mapping out and scheduling your essential health checks, and making sure to seek support and respite yourself.
“If you have quit your job, it’s easy to become isolated," Hunt advises. “Reach out to family and friends for help. Make sure you take care of yourself and your health, and take care of your mental well-being.”

Winnie Yu is a journalist who has contributed to magazines including Woman’s Day, Health, Prevention, and Scientific American Mind. She is also the author of several health books, on topics including Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, and arthritis.

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