THE BLOG
04/15/2013 09:14 am ET Updated Jun 15, 2013

Caring for Aging Parents Is Labor of Love - With a Cost

You can see hints of it in obituaries: A woman, 96, is survived by three children. A man who has lived to nearly 100 is survived by two children. How old, you wonder, are these children? And how much have they given to eldercare during their parents' last years?

Geriatricians, palliative care and hospice workers see it all the time, patients in their 80s, 90s and beyond being cared for by "children" in their 60s or 70s. I heard of one nonagenarian who went beyond the old saw of not wanting to be a burden to her family. She admitted worrying that her extreme old age was ruining the so-called "golden years" of her 74-year-old daughter.

There are nearly 10 million of you out there, adult children older than 50 who are caring for aging parents. We used to refer to a "sandwich" generation, those people who had children late in life, only to be confronted simultaneously with teenaged angst and parents who need more and more help.

Today, as people live longer, accumulating multiple chronic diseases along the way, the children of the oldest might just be easing into empty nests and long-awaited retirement when a new, very demanding, and unpaid job pops up: caregiver for an elderly parent.

A High Financial Cost

Let me emphasize that I know this work, in most instances, is a labor of love, payback for a lifetime of parental care and sacrifice. I've heard so many people say, "He (or she) did it for me. Now it's my turn to do it for him (or her)." There are millions of others — up to 44 million people  — providing unpaid family care for a disabled child, an ill spouse, a sibling or another relative. But few of us fortunate enough to have a long-lived parent can escape the problem of finding or providing care.

The number of adults taking care of aging parents has tripled in the past 15 years, and a full 25 percent of grown children are helping their parents by providing either personal care or financial assistance. A study of the economic impact of that care was produced by a partnership of the MetLife Mature Market Institute, the National Alliance for Caregiving, and the Center for Long Term Care Research and Policy at New York Medical College.

The financial costs are staggering. When adult children quit their jobs, or cut back on hours, they not only give up immediate income. They also reduce the amount they'll eventually see in their Social Security checks. They might give up additional years of accumulating pension benefits.

When you tally the lost wages, Social Security benefits and pension benefits, caregivers' losses total $3 trillion. The average adult child who is a caregiver loses $303,880 in lifetime wages and retirement benefits.

The Health Costs of Caregiving

When adult children provide care for aging parents, research has found, their own health suffers. People who are family caregivers are more likely to suffer from depression, stress, heart disease or alcohol abuse.

Even as they are busy shuttling Mom or Dad to medical appointments, or picking up prescriptions and sorting the pills into plastic reminder boxes, they often neglect their own health. They are less likely than their peers without caretaking roles to take preventive health steps, like mammograms, colonoscopies or even blood pressure readings. It adds up to a population so involved in looking out for the health and well being of others that they increase their own risk of dying.

It's Not All Bad News

If caregiving is a burden, it is one often undertaken willingly and with love. Some people report increased satisfaction. They're happy to do their part, and the payback is a chance to connect with a parent and improve family relationships. And the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 now allows many people to take up to 12 weeks off of work, without pay, to care for a family member without fear of losing their job.

Care for Yourself

Remember that if your health fails, you won't be able to continue to care for your parent. So get yourself to your own physician when you feel ill, or simply too stressed out for anyone's good.

Find a support group for caregivers, as specific to your situation as possible. For example, there are many local support groups for people caring for an Alzheimer's patient.

Look for a senior daycare center in your area. Dropping Mom or Dad off for a few hours or a whole day will give you time to remember that you have a life to live, too. Also, for a parent who is receiving home hospice care, Medicare will provide short-term care in a Medicare-approved facility like a hospital, nursing home, or inpatient hospice facility to provide "respite care" and give the usual caregiver a break.  You'll get a new lease on life, and you'll reduce your own risk of burnout. 

Call up your reserves of patience and empathy. Those maddening behaviors from an old and sick parent are not deliberate. Remember that, at the other end of life's spectrum, they were practicing patience and empathy when you cried inconsolably through long nights of infancy.

Tell all the old family stories. They'll love hearing them, and telling them will help you remember the good times, too.

There's never a time when "nothing can be done." Care, comfort and love are things that can always be done, and you are at the forefront of providing it.