The Cost of Caring

By Carol Zernial
WellMed Charitable Foundation Executive Director

How many family caregivers have sacrificed their financial futures through the act of caregiving? That was the question that ran through my mind as I listened to Elizabeth White, author of “Fifty-Five Unemployed and Faking Normal.” She eloquently described how a well-educated, middle income, professional woman fell into poverty. She was also middle-aged, meaning that she was unprepared to fight the sinking economy of the last recession and ageist forces that permeate American culture.

She wasn’t a caregiver, but she embodies the plight many family caregivers, particularly women, will face. When a woman quits her job to care for a loved one, she reduces her income over a lifetime by over $300,000 in lost wages and retirement earnings. She was already paid less than her male counterparts. She was already less likely be promoted, because she was a woman who might get married, might have children and might need to take time off to care for a family member.

The chilling truth is that most baby boomers, male and female, live either in debt, or paycheck to paycheck. Elizabeth quoted a statistic that most of us can’t raise more than $400 in an emergency. Of course, caregivers never find themselves in emergency situations.

Her most haunting comment was that Americans didn’t really want to hear about her slide into debt. People don’t have much sympathy for others who don’t manage their money. I wonder when two-thirds of an entire generation are financially failing in their old age if we will assume they did something wrong. Or, as she stated, will blame them for drinking too much Starbucks.

Elizabeth talked about the people she became aware of — while she was pretending to be okay — who were faking normal too. Caregivers do that all the time. We’ve got everything under control. We don’t need any help. As reticent as we are to admit we’re physically and emotionally exhausted and are hanging on by a thread, caregivers are probably even more
hesitant to admit they can’t make ends meet as well.

I thought of family members and friends who are just like Elizabeth. They’re single without retirement income other than Social Security and perhaps a little savings. Some have grown children. And many are caregivers.

What if we do everything right and still fail? We return the love of our family members with the care they need. We sacrifice our time and talents that were paid for with years of education or opportunities we turned down to be closer to home. Will others not care that we were the ones who did care?

Elizabeth talked about the importance of getting off of our thrones and admitting that we need help. This might be a true financial restructuring. But it could also be admitting to our siblings that we can’t go it alone. It could mean planning now for life post-caregiving to try to improve our odds in retirement. For me, it means seeing through the mask of faking normal in the faces of the people around me. And raising my hand to support those of us who really are caring.

WellMed Charitable Foundation Executive Director Carol Zernial is a noted gerontologist, radio show host, and immediate past Chair of the National Council on Aging. The non-profit WellMed Charitable Foundation focuses on complimentary programs impacting seniors and family caregivers, including weekly telephone learning sessions, evidence-based classes on stress reduction and more. Find out more at CaregiverSOS.org or toll-free at 1-866-390-6491.