Care for the aging: What it means to be my mother’s keeper

Care for the aging: What it means to be my mother’s keeper
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As the holiday approaches it’s a good time for families to talk about aging parents, finances and what happens if one parent falls ill.

Who will care for them?

What resources are available?

What living arrangements would work best?

“We never had that ‘what if’ conversation, so it was very difficult to care for my mother and pay bills,” says Dawn Williams-Brocks of Dearborn Heights. “I have three siblings, but the burden of caring for mom after strokes and Alzheimer’s fell onto me.”

Because her mother would roam the house and ask questions in the wee hours of the night, Williams-Brock was forced to quit her job as a bookkeeper for Detroit-based Advance Communications and devote herself to her mother’s needs. Other family members were too busy, as often happens where one sibling steps up to the role of caretaker.

“I love my mother dearly, I just wish she had put more directives in writing so it would have been easier to care for her,” Williams-Brocks says.

One sister had the purse strings to her mother’s money and the other did the care giving, which put them at odds. The cost of professional care was beyond their reach.

For two years Williams-Brocks did little but go to school for an MBA and care for her mom.

Struggles over money, care and lodging of frail seniors wouldn’t happen if people had the courage to discuss this before illness strikes an individual, according to Melissa Spickler, who leads the caregiver group for Merrill Lynch Global Wealth Management in Detroit and Bloomfield Hills.

Spickler, a financial advisor, developed her practice through caring for her mother through the end of her life.

“I was totally blind-sided,” she says. “Overnight my mother’s health deteriorated. I’d been ignoring all the signs. My mother was supposed to take one blood pressure pill a day. She took all 30. She let her life insurance policy lapse after paying into it for 20 years. I want to make sure others can help put systems in place to help before it becomes critical.”

Spickler isn’t alone.

Seven in 10 Americans turning 65 today will need care in coming years, according to a joint study conducted by Merrill Lynch and Age Wave, the nation’s foremost thought leader on population aging and its implications.

“In fewer than 10 years, the first Baby Boomers will turn 80. It’s in this decade of life when the likelihood of needing care is even higher, pressing us into a ‘caregiving crunch,’ where the number of potential care recipients is growing much, much faster than the number of potential caregivers who can look after their family and friends,” says the study, “The Journey of Caregiving: Honor, Responsibility and Financial Complexity.”

By 2050, the number of potential care recipients will grow by 84 percent, according to the study. It calls the situation common, complex, challenging and understudied. Twenty million people enter this life stage each year.

At least 500,000 additional caregivers will be needed, according to Age Wave. Yet there is a severe lack of training in geriatric medicine and wages for caregivers are extremely low.

Spickler now specializes in counseling families with elder parents on ways to plan for increased care needs because health care expenses are the number one worry in retirement. Advanced planning would involve long-term care insurance, home equity line of credit and health savings accounts.

Melissa Spickler, financial advisor from Merrill Lynch, specializes in counseling families with elder parents on ways to plan for increased care needs.

“These conversations are tough to conduct,” she says. “People hope to live forever. But we have to ask elders where they want to live if their health declines. They need to designate an executor for their estate that can be trusted. Someone has to have access to financial papers, computer passwords and medical designates.”

Indeed, the obligations don’t always end with the death of a loved one. Months, even years, may be spent settling estates, paying bills and collecting insurance on behalf of the deceased. All too often women in the family take on the bulk of care need and provided.

Beyond financial planning, many are helped by the Detroit Area Agency on Aging. It provides counselors to help people navigate Medicare and Medicaid options, programs to help grandparents raising grandchildren, nutrition counseling, a long-term care ombudsman program to monitor nursing homes, Meals on Wheels and community wellness service centers.

The goal of community wellness is to provide community-based educational opportunities, concrete ways to help those who suffer physical and emotional disabilities. This includes the Neighborhood Service Organization, People’s Community Services, Services for Older Citizens and St. Patrick Senior Center.

To reach the Detroit Area Agency on Aging, call (313) 446-4444 or please click here.

For more information on the Merrill Lynch/Age Wave study on caregivers, please click here.

— Charts taken from the study “The Journey of Caregiving: Honor, Responsibility and Financial Complexity.”

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