I’ve written before about my friend and the situation she and her family have been plunged into since her father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease about four or five years ago. The way problems escalate is now, sadly, a common scenario facing hundreds of thousands of families around the USA and across the world. I have seen the situation take its toll on her, particularly in recent months as she struggles to find an “affordable” place for her father to spend his days, especially as he now requires the support offered in a special “memory care” unit. No, don’t switch off, thinking “Well, we’ll be fine, we’ve saved for every eventuality” – because it has become apparent to me that, unless you are in receipt of Megamillions lottery winnings or a sizeable trust fund, you may well not be fine.
Let me refresh your memory: My friend’s parents are like many of their generation. They worked hard, they bought a house, they raised two girls, both of whom worked their way through college and have built careers. And along the way my friend and her sister took on board their parents’ ethos of saving for the future, not spending beyond one’s means and just getting on with having a good life – not a life marked by great wealth or outrageous adventure. Just a good life – and who could ask for more?
In the past several months my friend and her sister have come close to breakdown. Because her parents live a few hundred miles away, and her sister – who lives closer – is a schoolteacher, they divvied up the tasks to try to gain support for their parents. Every day my friend made the calls to various homes and elder care services, and after school had ended, her sister visited the places where an appointment to view had been made by my friend. She made hundreds of calls each week (and I am not exaggerating) – multiple calls to many places; getting information, often being given incorrect information. Many times when she thought she'd found a good, affordable place, so her sister went along to see it, only to find it filthy, with ill-kempt patients, some screaming or sitting in their own waste. Oh, and these places are charging thousands of dollars per month. You see, getting old is like cancer – it’s big business - and there are whole corporations making big profits from our distress. The really nice facilities were over $7,000 per month. A couple of weeks ago my friend thought she had landed the perfect home for her father – full “memory care” and there was a room available, plus they could just about afford it if my friend and her sister both delved into their savings to augment their parents’ savings. They were told they had one room and it was being reserved for them. My friend’s sister rushed over during her lunch break – but someone else had turned up first with a check – and there was no more room at that particular inn.
Everything well-meaning people have suggested (“Try this … try that … call this person, speak to this organization) has either already been explored or there was nothing they could do for the family. My friend has gone back to the VA numerous times to see if they can offer more assistance – her father is a veteran of the Korean War – to no avail. I mentioned the situation on my Facebook page, and so many people graciously posted their ideas and sources of information. I passed it on to my friend - she had already exhausted pretty much every option.
The truth of the matter is that her parents thought they were saving enough money for their future and had the right financial contingency plans in place, but the future just became more and more expensive as time went on. And it’s not going to get any cheaper. Remember that, when you think you have enough to see you through to your old age. I read an op-ed column last year, where the writer said (I’m paraphrasing here), “The trouble with the Boomers is that they assume old age is a constant 75, and they think it will be the new 50. And 75 can be pretty good – people are doing more things than ever before at that age. But 75 is not 80 and it’s not 85 – and most of us are not prepared for what happens in our 80’s.”
My dear friend is exhausted beyond measure. She eventually pretty much gave up her job – because doing all the work necessary to find a future home for her parents (her mother now has severe health issues) and making trips to care for them was just too darn hard and took up all of her time. Today I learned that she and her sister have had to break the news to their mother that the only way forward is to sell their parents’ very modest house. She has found a room for them to share in a residential home that has a memory care facility as well as assisted living – so her mother will be able to sleep in the same room as her dad, and they will go their separate ways during the day. She and her sister will continue to augment their parents’ care with their own retirement savings. And of course, by selling the house they have to get advice on how to avoid capital gains tax – yet that money, all of it, will be needed to care for her parents. When her father dies - and, in truth, it probably it won’t be too long – they will decide whether they can afford to keep her mother in assisted living over the longer term – which she needs – or bring her home to one of their houses. Needless to say, they don’t have mansions, plus her sister has three strapping boys who take up a lot of space.
This is the truth of what is facing so many ordinary people. Not spendthrifts, not people who have lived high on the hog their entire lives. Just ordinary people who grew old and needed a bit more help than their money or their insurances could buy.
I told my friend this morning that it was all making me wonder what one had to do to prepare for the future. Despite all the “Work Out Your Retirement Needs” tables available at banks and online, how much would be enough to see you through? And how do you balance being fiscally responsible, and having a little fun with your money in the here and now? “I know what I’m going to do,” she said. “I’m going to check myself out when I’ve had enough – it might be 70, 75 or 80 – but I am not going through this terror myself. I would rather be dead.”
As we Boomers draw closer to our late 70’s and into our 80’s, there are going to be more of us needing care, and probably more of us making that decision – that it is all too darn hard to go on, and we never knew things would cost that much (today’s $7000 a month will be over $10,000 for a room in a modest long term care facility very soon – and I fear that someone will tell me we’re there already).
I have always believed that a country that could not or would not take care of its people is a very poor country indeed. You cannot have a big old rich crust on top of such a weak pie. I don’t have the answer, and I wish I could come up with something – in fact, every time I talk to my friend (pretty much every day), I wish I had a brilliant idea for her. Knowing the many avenues she has explored, I cannot insult her any more with my "Try this or that" suggestions. We should not let our senior population, and those who care for them continue to suffer in this way. It is beyond cruel, and it is no way to live in this world.