For those “sandwiched” between caring for kids and their parents, financial and emotional challenges don’t have to be overwhelming.
By Laura Ling
I was sure we’d found the right home for Dad. Caregivers would wait on him hand and foot. He’d have his own spacious bedroom with a private patio. There were activities from bingo to wine tastings, with live music every Wednesday. But as we approached the facility for our tour, my father’s thick, gray mustache couldn’t hide his frown.
“There’s no coroner here, Dad,” I said, trying to lighten the mood.
“Yeah, but they have an incinerator in the back,” he said.
I sighed. At 82 years old, my father still has a sharp—if crude—sense of humor. But he’s often lethargic, forgetful. A year and a half ago he was in and out of the hospital, and after contracting a severe infection, he had to be placed in an acute care facility. My sister and I thought we were going to lose him but, after a miraculous recovery, we were looking to move him into an assisted living center. I was overjoyed that my father had rebounded, but I knew he would never be the same. His health had stabilized, but for how long?
I felt an overwhelming sense of responsibility to care for him, but between rushing my kids to school and sports practice, my work as a journalist and driving two hours to visit Dad every few days, I felt like I was being torn apart.
For the millions of us in the so-called “sandwich generation,” caring for aging parents while raising kids causes both financial and emotional stress, if not turmoil. According to Prudential’s Financial Wellness Census, more than a third of caregivers for parents are “discouraged,” with low subjective and objective financial health. Among all caregivers, 38 percent fear they will never be able to enjoy retirement themselves.
Fortunately, as I learned from my experience and the experiences of others I spoke with in my role as host of the Everyday Bravery podcast, the challenges that caregivers face aren’t insurmountable.
When the child becomes the parent
I started noticing Dad’s decline the day I returned home from North Korea, almost 10 years ago. I’d been held captive there for nearly five months, apprehended by soldiers at the Chinese-North Korea border while on a reporting assignment. When I stepped off the airplane, there were tears in Dad’s eyes and a look of relief. But also a blankness that’s hard to describe.
“Everything’s fine” is a refrain many adult children hear from their aging parents, especially when it’s not actually true. I didn’t confront my father about the memory lapses, not for a while. And I didn’t think to ask him about what preparations—if any—he’d made for potential long-term care.
That’s a common mistake, according to Amanda Clayman, Prudential’s Financial Wellness Advocate and a practicing financial therapist. Average financial acumen peaks at age 49, she notes, and starts to decline at age 60.
However, a decline in financial ability may go unnoticed until there’s a costly mistake -- accounts mishandled, important payments missed, or we’re a victim of financial abuse or fraud.
That makes it all the more vital to have conversations with your parents about their finances and care preferences as early as possible, before their health declines.
While my father has a pension and savings, I worry that his money will run out. I’ve talked to my husband about needing to put money aside for my dad’s care, just like we do for our kids’ college education. And, when our kids are a bit older, we need to have a conversation with them about how well we’ve set ourselves up.
Taking time out from self-sacrifice
My sister and I felt we had no other choice but to put Dad in assisted living. He’d stayed with each of us for extended periods of time and it didn’t go well. He’d complain of boredom, that he missed his friends. I worried he’d topple down the stairs in my home, or trip over my son’s train tracks. And between maintaining our careers, marriages and families, there just wasn’t enough time or expertise to give our dad the care he deserved.
Caregivers for parents spend nearly as much time helping their mom or dad as they do at their full-time job—more than 30 hours a week, Prudential’s Financial Wellness Census found. And the actual time spent providing care for a parent was 45 percent higher for women than for men. For many women, caregiving may mean sacrificing their careers.
The challenges of caring for an elderly parent are compounded when you’re coping with your own health problems. More than 40 percent of caregivers in Prudential’s Financial Wellness Census reported having a disability or long-term ailment themselves. Which begs the question: Who’s caring for the caregivers?
One woman I spoke with discovered she needed to have major surgery while she was the primary caregiver to both her husband and father-in-law. Her philosophy to cope?
“Every 30 days, find something to look forward to, no matter what it is,” she said. “Look forward to that, put it on the calendar, make it an event. Make yourself take that time to just unwind and be still.”
The best advice? Be a kid again
We finally found Dad a home in Sacramento, near where he’d lived for 70 years. Dad described it as “tolerable.” I worried that I’d failed. That I wasn’t taking good enough care of him.
Liz O’Donnell, who started a support group for women caregivers called Working Daughter, suggested that maybe I needed to stop being a caregiver for a while—and start being a daughter again. She asked me about my favorite memories with my father.
My mind went back to when I was a child, waking up, going into the bathroom and seeing this giant, live catfish swimming in the bathtub. My father’s biggest catch ever—he wanted to show it off.
Fishing was my dad’s favorite hobby. We used to go fishing together. After he retired he got a business card made that says, “Eat, Sleep and Go Fishing.” But he hadn’t gone fishing in years.
Much too early on a Saturday morning, I brought Dad down to the Sacramento Marina.
“Dad, do you have any advice for me?” I asked.
“Yeah, catch a fish,” he laughed.
We spent most of the day on the water. Trolling back and forth, hoping for a bite. Sometimes I couldn’t help myself from slipping back into caregiver mode: “Dad, I have sunscreen, do you want to put it on?” But most of the time, it was like when I was younger, watching Dad cast his line, tug on the rod, trying to tempt something up from the depths below—while cursing like a sailor.
For one day, I wasn’t his caregiver. I was his kid. He was Dad. And we didn’t catch a thing.
Laura Ling is an Emmy award-winning journalist and producer. She’s traveled the world to report on slave labor in the Amazon, the drug war in Mexico, internet censorship in China and women’s rights in Turkey. While reporting on the trafficking of North Korean women, Ling and a colleague were arrested and held captive for 140 days before being granted a special pardon and returning to the United States. She currently hosts season 2 of Prudential’s Everyday Bravery podcast.
For media inquiries about Everyday Bravery, contact Yue Jiang.