As an elder law attorney, I often work with adult children who are now or are planning to become caregivers for their parents. For years I have been in awe of anyone who has accepted that responsibility seeing the huge burden they take on and the impact on their lives and that of their families. It was only recently that I began to fully appreciate the enormity of the task and sacrifice when I, myself, briefly became an accidental caregiver for my father.
Despite being 94 years of age – practically 95 by the time this column comes out – my dad lives virtually independently. His mind is sharp, he can take care of his household, he can get around from place to place, and when needed, he can arrange for outside help. If he needs to go someplace in New York City, he can hop on a subway or bus and can navigate the complex City transit system with ease. Until the State budget cuts a year or two ago, he was still working as a judicial hearing officer in the courts. In fact, when those positions were cut, my Dad said to me, "Now I have look for another job." When I argued that with his Social Security and pension he really did not have to work, he retorted emphatically, "Yes I do." He had worked all his life and nothing was going to stop him now. So I did not really think twice about inviting my dad to stay with us here in Orange County for a week or so. His doctors in Florida discovered a medical condition and suggested that his treatment should be in New York City. If he needed to stay longer he could return to the senior housing where he stayed before he left for his Florida winter. In short, we viewed this as hosting a family houseguest for a few days, not being a caregiver.
By the way, if you know anyone who is looking to employ a retired New York State Judge, let me know.
That all changed when his treatment was extended, the Senior housing fell through and we were hit with January. Remember this January when 10 degrees above zero was considered a heat wave? Since we, essentially, live in the middle of nowhere, for over a month my dad became homebound in our home. Since this was probably the mildest form of caregiving possible – a relatively independent older parent stuck in your house - I was surprised at the profound impact this made on our lives. In retrospect, it was largely a matter of how we were setting our priorities for the month or so he was there. Our primary concern suddenly became that we were supplied with the appropriate type of food he could eat, that everything else that he needed was available and that we were home enough so he would not be alone from morning to night – we did not want him to be lonely just because he could not go out in the severe weather. For example, I made it my business to come home from work at lunch time to make sure he had company and also had a good lunch. My wife cooked incredible meals every night. I think I lost about 7 pounds during that time just from eating healthy. I took days off of work to drive him into the City to see doctors and take care of other business. In short, our lives became all about my dad. Since we knew this was for a limited time, we never saw this as an imposition and enjoyed the extra time we had with him. But it certainly gave me just a touch of deeper insight into what life must be like people I had admired and counseled for years on the law, the full-time caregivers for their parents.
This deepening perspective inspired me to do some research on the non-legal aspects of being a long term caregiver for parents. Here are some of the highlights: Caregivers see their own doctors less and, likewise, exercise less – in short they take less care of themselves. Not surprisingly, caregivers suffer a greater amount of maladies including depression, diabetes, hypertension and heart disease. Caregivers who are holding their own jobs miss more work and consequently lose more pay. Caregiver burn out is common bringing deleterious effects not only to the caregiver but the parent as well. Even when there are multiple adult children, in the majority of cases it is one adult child that is left with the responsibility of caregiving.
If you are that one caregiver child or even one of several caregiver children, there are things that you should know and steps you should take:
1. A caregiver support group. This could be a fantastic resource for help of all kinds and can be located through your county’s Office of the Aging, organizations such as Alzheimer’s Associations and local hospitals;
2. If your parent is a Veteran or a spouse of a Veteran, check with the VA to see if you qualify for Aid and Assistance, a monthly stipend to help pay for outside home care, workers;
3. Community Medicaid can cover home care. If you are unsure if your parent qualifies, consult an elder law attorney;
4. You can get paid by your parent as a caregiver. This not only helps you if you have had to cut down on your ability to work but also, if done properly with the proper paperwork, is a legitimate spend down to help you parent become eligible for Medicaid;
5. Go on line to the website for the National Alliance of Caregiving (www.caregiving.org) which contains a wealth of relevant information.
Remember you are not the first one to be in this position and help for you is also help for your parent. There are 65.7 million caregivers in our country. You do not need to do this all alone.
Sanford R. Altman is an attorney practicing elder law, estate administration and estate planning with Jacobowitz and Gubits in Walden. He is a member of the AARP Legal Services Network and chairman of the Town of Montgomery Seniors Independence Project. This column is intended to give general legal information, not legal advice.