Toll of Caring for Elderly Increases

HandsBy: Kelly Greene

A steep rise in people caring for elderly parents is taking a toll on the health and finances of many baby boomers, a new study says. Older caregivers who work and provide care to a parent at the same time are more likely than other workers in their age group to report poor health, with problems including depression and chronic disease. There is evidence they “experience considerable health issues as a result of their focus on caring for others,” the report says.

A Study in Caregiving

Average losses in wages, pension and Social Security benefits over a person’s lifetime:
Women: $324,044

Percentage of men and women providing care for an aging parent:
1994: 3%
2008: 17%

1994: 9%
2008: 28%

Source: MetLife

The percentage of adult children taking care of their parents has tripled since 1994, with nearly 10 million people who are 50 and older doing so in 2008, according to a new analysis of the U.S. Health and Retirement study, a bank of economic and health data on people over age 50 that was collected by the University of Michigan. The sample contained 1,112 people age 50-plus with at least one living parent.

The financial toll on care providers who are 50 or older averages $303,880 per person in lost wages, pensions and Social Security benefits over their lifetime, due to leaving the work force early to care for a parent, according to the study. For women, the cost is higher: $324,044, with $142,693 in lost wages, $131,351 in lost Social Security benefits, and $50,000 in lost pension benefits or matching contributions to defined-benefit plans.

The study “points out the importance of considering what caregiving does to your financial security,” says Sandra Timmermann, director of MetLife Mature Market Institute, a research unit of MetLife Inc. that conducted the study with the National Alliance for Caregiving and New York Medical College’s Center for Long Term-Care Research and Policy. “These were all people over 50, and these are their highest earning years. They don’t have a lot of time to catch up”

Another study released last year by MetLife and the alliance found that depression, hypertension, diabetes and pulmonary disease were among caregiver’s more-common health problems. They also experienced higher rates of stress, were more likely to smoke or drink alcoholic beverages, and were less likely to get preventive health screenings, including mammograms.

Susie Butler, 54 is an only child helping her 83-year old mother, a widow who suffers dementia. “You start taking years off your life if you’re take car of someone with dementia. There’s a lot of stress,” says Ms. Butler, who works full time as the head of Medicare’s caregiver program.

She has had to take time off of work to move her mother 3 times as her condition has worsened, ultimately to an assisted-living facility near Ms. Butler’s home in Annapolis, MD. In January, she had to talk the facility into letting her mother stay after she removed her tracking bracelet and tried to board a bus with a visiting Boy Scout troop. “I never know at work when I’m going to get the call that she’s going to make a break for it,” Ms. Butler says.

And with monthly rent of $5,500 and occasional nursing care at $150 a day, the daughter says, “wer’re eating through her savings very quickly.”

The new study calls for employers to do a better job of accommodating caregivers so they don’t quit, and steering them to stress-management and free caregiving resources. It also points out that caregivers would benefit from paid family leave and says more states are beginning to show interest in doing so by tapping workers’ compensation funds.

“People are living longer, and with chronic disease. Somebody’s got to take care of them, and it’s us,” says Gail Hunt, chief executive of the National Alliance for Caregiving.