It is estimated that family caregivers spend $7,000 annually on expenses related to taking care of a loved one. (AARP, 2016)
With the typical caveat that every caregiving situation is different, I want to rap with you honestly about spending your own money on caregiving.
Before caregiving, the max average radius of travel outside my house was 4 miles. My job was 2 miles away from my front door. The furthest distance I regularly traveled was typically 7 miles over to Calvin’s neighborhood. When I began caregiving, the miles started piling up, and before I knew it, I was driving a minimum of 30 miles a day. Every single day.
If you commute to work, by now you are probably saying I am sounding pretty whiny at this point. I’ve done my fair share of commuting, and that’s why I parked myself where I’m at right now.
Already barely scraping by, traveling more frequently meant that my bank account was bleeding faster than ever. Besides the route to the second shift, there were all kinds of others trips and runs I found myself making. I was constantly running back and forth. I knew that something had to give, or this caregivership would be sinking fast.
My first clue something wasn’t quite right was while she was in the hospital. Magazines were piling up all over her kitchen. It didn’t add up at the time, but I knew she had been taken advantage of for sure.
As a person who was blasted straight into the entrenched caregiving stage, caring for Grandma and carrying on the rehabilitation once the Home Health ran out, at first Grandma’s finances weren’t of top priority to me. Back then, my priority was doing and helping.
Once I got her home and settled, after all undiagnosed health issues straightened out and all fall risks eliminated, it was finally time to focus on her finances and see what the future held in store for us. (Yes, I said “us.” We have rights as family caregivers. As long as I’m the one providing care, my input holds equal weight.)
In the early days of our adventure, I just trusted that my grandma was capable of taking care of that stuff on her own. I was young and naive back then and didn’t know all the major impact finances had on caregiving and the road ahead. Remember, I was busy DOING. When she came home from the hospital, I gladly handed the responsibility of taking care of her bills back to her and kept an eye from a respectful distance. Even though I had suspicions at the time that her memory was jacked up and her cognitive abilities had diminished, I didn’t want to infringe on her dignity and autonomy by seizing control of her assets. Admitting you need help with something like managing your money is embarrassing for someone who is getting older. We all want to be in control of our finances. It’s also sometimes hard to accept the fact that your loved one needs help.
Once I started spending every day with her, I was tipped off by the insane amount of mail she was getting. Grandma had over 20 magazine subscriptions through a number of illegitimate magazine schemes. Romance novels from four different subscription services cluttered her bedroom and living room. She was giving Publishers Clearinghouse money monthly. Packages with crazy junk would come flooding in the mail.
When late notices started coming in on her bills, I suggested we sit down and pay the bills together. Eventually, she trusted me enough that I could look at her bank statements.
Once I did, I was mortified. Money was hemorrhaging from her account, and fast.
I had to step in and say, ENOUGH. It’s time to take over the money. I reassured her that I cared for her very much and that I had her very best interests in mind. I wanted to protect her assets so she had a secure future and I could ensure the quality of her care. But I needed her to trust me and hand over the reins.
At first she was a little reluctant, so I called in Leo, an elder at her church and a close family friend, to help me reason with her. He shared that they use online bill pay and have a joint account to help his sister. Once Leo gave me the blessing, Grandma was on board.
I made a financial action plan and we slowly but surely waded through the mess and got her all straightened out.
1 We started by locking up her checkbook and cards. I explained to her that if I am going to be helping her pay the bills and make sure she has everything she needs, I need to be consulted on all outgoing funds.
To make the mess even worse, once I had identified the major problems, Grandma would only add to them. Remember, I was full time employed at the time. When I was at work, alone by herself all day, on a million dollar sucker lists, she would get calls from scam artists trying to convince her she’d won 3.5 million dollars or sell her the next miracle cure. She would call me, frantic for her card info or trying to find her checks. I had grossly underestimated Grandma’s judgments to make good decisions.2 I installed caller ID and spam apps to keep the scammers out of her phone. Eventually I put it on Do Not Disturb. 3 We closed her account and started a new account, a JOINT account, with debit cards for both of us. I wanted her to feel like a human, even though I knew that I was just going to lock it up.
Grandma didn’t have a debit card. She paid all of her bills in person. Every single month. She was a cash and check kind of lady. She did have an ATM card, but by the time she got home from the hospital, she didn’t remember the PIN. (Back then, I didn’t understand how my Durable Power of Attorney worked so I couldn’t use it to work with the banks to recover access to her accounts.) There was no PayPal or buying stuff online. Unless I wanted to use my own money then go back to the bank to get reimbursed.
Of course, Grandma wasn’t driving anymore, so for expenses beyond her bills and groceries (she was still going with me to the store back then), when we needed money to pay for something, I had to load her up in the car and run her to the bank. Every single time.4 Not only did these creeps have her bank account, they also had her credit card information on file. We put a freeze on her primary credit card and closed any extra accounts. She doesn’t even need the card she has, but I just keep it around for an emergency. 5 We started paying all of the bills online. Grandma wasn’t able to remember or handle paying the bills on time anymore. It used to take forever to sit out and write all the checks. Now, we do it once a month and it takes literally five minutes.
Once we made all of these changes, I found comfort in the fact that Grandma’s money was now safe from outside attackers. Everything was much clearer, and I was able to start addressing the long term.
I uncovered a long term care insurance plan (aka a gift from God), an IRA, a hidden savings account, and a monthly income stream from a duplex rental. All of those things, combined with her monthly pension and a tiny social security payment meant we were going to be okay.
Soon, I realized that we were going to be better than okay.
Meanwhile, I was still broke. When I shared my frustration about running out of funds because of the exorbitant amount of gas I was burning through each month, Grandma suggested she give me some money for gas. Before that, I felt guilty asking my grandma for money (we have a family history of extortion and financial abuse), so I was desperate to avoid that at all costs. I didn’t want my grandma to think I was like my other family members. When she made that suggestion, I realized something: Grandma can still take care of me. Maybe I could never get paid to care for her as her DPOA, but that doesn’t mean she couldn’t look after me in other ways. She could afford it. When I accepted the fact that the fuel cost was something I was incurring due to caregiving, it was okay for me to charge my grandma for it. After all, I wouldn’t be running back and forth if it weren’t for her. So I started filling up my tank, and not feeling bad about it.
Slowly, my funds started recovering.
Before I began caring for Grandma, my food budget was probably about $150 a month. When I started helping Grandma, I started sharing meals with her. It no longer made sense for me to fill my refrigerator, and I pretty much stopped buying groceries.
I started seeing a little more padding in my bank account.
The last thing I did to save myself money was joining on to Grandma’s phone plan. She could get two lines for $55. We had to be just plain dumb not to jump on that.
So there you have it, I eliminated three expenses from my life thanks to caregiving. When I quit my job last year, this literally saved my behind. In the interest of full disclosure, I did let Grandma help me with some of my bills when I was getting myself established with my new business.
The old Rachel would have stewed over this for days, sick at the thought of asking. Smarter Rachel knows that caregiving impacted that decision, and she needs to be open to letting Grandma bless her.
Amidst all this, another thing started happening. In my inaugural post, The Top Ten Reasons Caregiving is a Good For You, I shared with you the positive influences caregiving has had on me. One of them is that, over time, I began to notice that I no longer had time to spend money or worry about the things I couldn’t afford because I was too busy back and forth between work and taking care of Grandma.
And my grandma is super cheap. My ideas for thing we could buy and get to make our lives easier were often met with dubiousness. “I don’t need that.” Or “Let’s just worry about that later.” Grandma does not like to spend money. She’s from a different generation, one that’s not washed up with the materialism and consumerism we see pervading today’s society. Her thrifty attitude started rubbing off on me. Now I find myself questioning each purchase I make, asking myself, “Do I really need this?” Or “Can I wait and see if I still want this later?”
Not everyone is fortunate to find themselves in this situation. I know this. I catch myself counting my blessings every single day.
The bottom line is, if your loved one can afford it, they can and should look out for you financially.
Not all compensation is translated into an hourly wage. As you can see from my story, Grandma doesn’t pay me an hourly rate to take care of her, even though I spend plenty of hours with her. But she can still reimburse me for my time.
Certainly, caregiving is a selfless act. However, we don’t have to be martyrs, losing everything providing for loved one if they have the means to support us.
You can’t be open to accepting this until you are open to redefining what dependency looks like. In a caregiving situation, both the caree, that is the recipient of care, and yes, the care *giver* can both give AND RECEIVE. It is a symbiotic relationship.
Finally, caregiving is a partnership. That means there is give and take on both sides. If you’re completely 100% responsible for someone’s welfare, then they need to provide you with the proper authority to take care of their needs. It is okay to have non-negotiables. Certain demands and agreements must be made for the long term sustainability of the partnership.
Don’t let money make you feel guilty. It could very quickly send you on a course to the bottom of the ocean if you are too scared to venture into these waters. After all, we gotta eat!