Navigating the Sandwich
My Father Wants to Live to be 101
I was about to enter my 13th year of managing my parents’ care, and it dawned on me that I might be caring for my parents longer than it took me to raise my four daughters
My gut tightened and my hands clenched as I listened to my dad tell me he wanted to live to be 101 — this was a few months after his 91st birthday. For the past several years, he had told me he wanted to live to be 100, and now he’d added a year to that number.
I was unsure what to make of the update to his life expectancy, but the thought of needing to manage my dad’s care for another ten years felt daunting. My mother had recently passed away after her 12-year battle with dementia, an awful disease that slowly ate away at my vibrant mother. Being the only daughter with two older brothers, the primary responsibility of caring for my elderly parents had fallen on me. I was about to enter my 13th year of managing my parents’ care, and it dawned on me that I might be caring for my parents longer than it took me to raise my four daughters.
I took a breath, smiled, and sarcastically responded, “You better get a job as a greeter at Home Depot.” I muttered under my breath, “Because your money is going to run out long before you reach 101.”
My dad had never been financially astute, and that angered me. He’d never once asked me in the past 12 years about how much or little money he had in the bank, or how his care would be paid for moving forward. He’d always left the finances up to my mom, and when she fell ill I took over that role. Although he wasn’t a big spender, I often wondered why this subject wasn’t important to him since his livelihood depended on it. I chose not to ask. I knew it wouldn’t be well received and he wasn’t going to change now.
My mom passed a week after my dad’s 91st birthday in April, 2020. I decided it was time for Dad to see his financial status in black and white, even if he didn’t seem to care. I put together a spreadsheet and walked him and my two brothers through each line item so they could all see his finances clearly.
After we reviewed it, I said, “You may not be able to stay in your house if you live to be 101. We may need to find alternative care.”
He pushed the spreadsheet onto the floor, glared out the window, and coarsely responded, “I don’t want to be put into one of those shitholes.”
My face flushed as I held back my urge to tell him that his childish response infuriated me. We were all still mourning Mom’s death, and I knew it wouldn’t help the conversation to react. And I needed his approval to start the process of liquidating some of his assets so I could keep him afloat in his house for the next several years.
Despite my dad’s behavior, I felt lucky he still had some assets left to cover his care for the foreseeable future, but it didn’t happen by chance. My mom had made some smart investments and had saved for retirement, but that money could have easily disappeared if I hadn’t been advocating for my parents. A few years ago, I had discovered that one of our caregivers was emotionally seducing my dad. Months after I thought I’d resolved the issue between them, I noticed an increase in monthly cash withdrawals from the family bank account with no receipts to account for the cash. I replaced the caregiver and kept a closer eye on their expenses. If I hadn’t been there to advocate for my parents, who knows if my dad would have any money left.
When my mom passed, her teacher’s pension ended. My dad’s income was quickly reduced to a third of what they had brought in together. He only received a small monthly social security check and a $200 pension check from a company he had worked for years earlier. His income didn’t cover his monthly living expenses, let alone any outside care.
I want to honor my dad’s wishes to stay in his house as long as I can keep him there, but I also need to plan for the possibility that he may live for another decade. That’s no easy feat when the cost of care is rising in the United States. The average total out-of-pocket cost for healthcare after age 65 is at least $100,000, and a study from the U.S. Department of Health Services from 2016 states the elderly that have severe long-term care needs averaged $140,000. Many Americans mistakenly assume that long-term care services and supports, which include basic personal tasks of everyday life like bathing, dressing, toileting and eating are covered under their health insurance or Medicare, but they aren’t.
Being an author who wrote about the “sandwich generation,” I can tell you it isn’t easy and it will only get harder as our parents continue to live longer, but there are proactive things we can do to ease some of the financial and emotional pressure.
Here are some good starting points:
- Start with honest and open communication. Sit down with your parents while they are coherent and start those hard conversations. Make sure that they have their affairs in order. Find out if your parents have an advance directive. This provides a clear understanding of their health-care wishes when they are unable to voice them. A Durable Power of Attorney is a type of advance directive. Make sure all involved siblings have copies.
- Long-term care insurance. If your parents are still healthy, research long-term care options in your state. There are some insurance plans that reimburse based on benefits received and others that are indemnity based. Meaning once they qualify for long-term care, they’ll receive a monthly check that they can use to pay for expenses at their discretion. Also consider buying this policy for yourself to ease the burden for your children.
- Ask for support. Assign tasks to your siblings based on their strengths. Hire a caregiver part-time. See if friends, neighbors, or fellow congregation members at their place of worship can drop by occasionally, or take them to a doctor appointment as needed.
- Educate yourself on community support services. Every state has an Aging Services Division dedicated to providing frail seniors with home and community-based services, so that they can continue living in their homes. Do a Google search to see what services your county provides. Many counties offer transportation services and some offer trained people who will come into the house to identify potential safety hazards and fix them the same day, like installing a safety bar in in the shower. This can improve your parents’ quality of life and minimize chances of a fall in the future.
- Review your parents’ expenses. Comb through your parents’ bills to determine if there are simple cost-cutting opportunities such as a less expensive cable package or fewer meals out.
- Check eligibility for government services. If one of your parents is a veteran or has a disability, they may be eligible to apply for Medicaid, Veterans assistance, or disability benefits.
This list may seem overwhelming, but not everything needs to be addressed at the same time. Stay proactive with your parents’ needs and tackle a little each month or week. Better yet, start with that open and honest conversation from the heart.
Laurie James has successfully launched four daughters, has been the primary caretaker for her elderly parents, and is the founder of a unique program in Manhattan Beach, California, that helps women through pivotal transitions in life. Her memoir, Sandwiched: A Memoir of Holding On and Letting Go, is out now.