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VOL. 46 | NO. 7 | Friday, February 18, 2022

What caring for an aging parent could cost you

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Trying to work while caring for an aging loved one can be difficult, stressful and at times overwhelming. Many people feel they must quit, take a leave of absence or at least reduce their hours in order to cope.

Sometimes, caregivers have little choice. But often people don’t realize the heavy financial toll they’ll pay or adequately research options that could allow them to keep working, says Amy Goyer, AARP’s national family and caregiving expert.

“When you’re in a caregiving crisis, you can make a decision out of stress and fatigue and fear,” Goyer says. “It’s important to make work decisions and financial decisions from a more objective place.”

Calculate the costs

A 2020 AARP study found 61% of caregivers to adults were employed, and the majority had experienced at least one work-related impact. Most commonly that meant being late to work, having to leave early or taking time off, but caregivers also reported having to take unpaid leave or reduce their hours. One in 10 working caregivers quit or retired early.

Those who leave work don’t just lose their current income. They also lose future raises, retirement contributions and company matches. Their future Social Security checks may be smaller, and many find they can’t earn as much when they return to work because their skills are out of date. A few years out of the workforce – AARP’s study found the average caregiving period was 4.5 years – can leave you hundreds of thousands of dollars poorer at retirement. Fidelity Investments has a “ cost of leaving the workforce “ calculator that can help you tally the potential impact. Fidelity is a NerdWallet partner.

Investigate the alternatives

Caregivers are less likely to quit if they have certain benefits at work, including paid sick days or unpaid family leave, the AARP study found. Among the most helpful benefits for caregivers are flexible schedules, the ability to work from home and paid family leave, says Cecilia Shiner, research director for the LIMRA Secure Retirement Institute, an insurance industry research group.

Under federal law, you may be eligible for as much as 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave in a 12-month period through the Family and Medical Leave Act to care for a child, spouse or parent (although not an in-law or other relative).

Eligible employees can keep their health insurance and return to the same or an equivalent job. Those caring for a veteran could be eligible for up to 26 weeks. You must have worked for the employer at least 1,250 hours in the 12 months before the leave, and the organization must employ at least 50 people within 75 miles of your work location, among other requirements.

You also might be able to break up your leave, allowing you to take off one or two days per week, for example, says Goyer, author of “Juggling Life, Work, and Caregiving.”

Before quitting, you should ask what accommodations your employer is willing to offer, Goyer says. Just the ability to make personal calls at work can help caregivers trying to contact doctors or other professionals who aren’t available after hours, she says.

Seek help outside work

Many communities offer affordable help that can make caretaking easier, such as Meals on Wheels, adult day care, senior companions, chore services, transportation and respite care. Goyer recommends contacting a local Area Agency on Aging – public or private nonprofit organizations that address the needs of older residents – to ask what’s available and to request an in-home assessment of your loved one’s needs.

The Department of Veterans Affairs has additional services for veterans, including “aid and attendance “ benefits that provide home-based care. If your loved one is impoverished, they may qualify for in-home care at no cost to them through Medicaid, Goyer says. Some states even pay family members to provide such care. Check your state’s Medicaid site for more information.

“It’s not a huge amount of money, but it’s some income coming in to help offset the fact that you’ve cut back or stopped working,” Goyer says.

If you can afford one, a geriatric care manager could be another source of help. These professionals, who are often nurses or social workers, can assess your loved one’s situation, find care options and be on call in case of emergency. Hourly fees often range from $100 to $250.

Other family members, friends and even neighbors may also be willing to help if asked. A relative who doesn’t live close by could still help by paying bills or dealing with insurance companies, for instance. A neighbor could check in regularly and call you with any concerns.

Even if you do need to quit or reduce your working hours, doing this research can help you create a caregiving plan that details how you’ll manage the day-to-day responsibilities, who will help you, where you can turn in an emergency and how you’ll take care of your mental and emotional health, says Stacey Watson, head of Fidelity’s life events planning. That alone can reduce your stress and help you feel more in control.

“Putting a plan in place can make a huge difference,” Watson says.

Liz Weston is a columnist at NerdWallet, a certified financial planner and author of “Your Credit Score.” Email: lweston@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @lizweston.

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