Caring for Her Elderly Parents 24/7

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Vivian Gibson
Vivian Gibson

Taking care of her elderly parents is Vivian Gibson’s full-time job.

The last two weeks in October weren’t so unusual.  She tended to her 86-year-old father for several days in the hospital – another episode in his unending battle with ankle sores stemming from service in the Korean War. Gibson also helped her mother, age 81, get through a medical procedure and chauffeured both parents to more than a dozen doctor’s appointments and to their dentist. Her mother has been dealing with a pulled tooth, along with abnormal cells in her bladder and an abnormal EKG.

In addition to their medical needs, Gibson helps them with everything else, from cleaning and dressing her father’s wound daily to buying their groceries and cleaning up the yard.  Her parents live in Bartow in central Florida, about 20 minutes from Gibson’s home in the country, and she’s always on call in case her father falls again.

Yet she remains surprisingly upbeat, unfazed by a non-existent social life and a caregiving burden made heavier by the fact she is an only child. “There is never any respite,” she said. “I have to work my doctor’s appointments in around theirs. My mother keeps telling me, ‘Don’t get sick. You can’t get sick!’ ”

To help her parents, Gibson retired from a local hospital just shy of her 59th birthday.  She’s now 61 and premature retirement has strained, though not broken her financially.  She drained most of her $17,000 emergency fund to meet regular expenses and reluctantly dipped into her IRAs and past employers’ retirement savings plans. Her combined balance is down to $300,000 – or about $12,000 lighter than when she retired, despite a rising stock market. Her lifeline has been a $24,000 pension from her work in state government.

“I wanted to travel,” she said – Australia, New Zealand, Canada – “but I don’t have the money – or the time – for that.”

Gibson’s situation is extreme but no longer rare. She is among the one in three women of the baby boomer generation caring for parents who are living longer and longer.   A new study finds that parental caregivers, usually daughters, are much more likely to retire in their 50s or early 60s than women without caregiving duties.

After reading about the study in a recent Squared Away blog, Gibson emailed in this comment: “Instead of telling us what we already know, how about coming up with solutions for the continuing caregiver crisis.”

For example, she said, her parents are prime candidates for assisted living but cannot afford the sky-high rent.  So they rely on her.

After three years in retirement, Gibson’s own personal financial pressures are due to rising health insurance premiums. A reader of financial magazines, she knows the argument for delaying when she signs up for her Social Security benefits – if she waits to sign up at age 66, her monthly check will be $1,882 per month, up from $1,422 if she takes the benefit when she turns 62 later this year.  But her insurance premiums in the state government health plan will increase $50 per month in December, to $693 – more than her $618 mortgage.

Together, these two expenses eat up much of her $2,000 monthly state pension, earned after maxing out at 30 years of pension credits.

After leaving her job in the Florida Department of Children and Families in 2009, Gibson went to work at a health center in nearby Lakeland, Florida, processing Medicare and indigent applications for patients.  But soon that job began to change, and she was shuffling paperwork – rather than working with clients. She was also taking a lot of time off under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) to help her parents.

“Of course, your company doesn’t like you to be absent so much even though it’s the law,” she said about FMLA. “I had always wanted to retire early but I kept putting it off, because I wanted to save more money. It [retirement] was a combination of my parents needing me more and more and the fact that the job had changed, without the patient contact,” she said.

Gibson’s parents are, in their way, also looking out for their daughter.  That’s why it took her more than a year to convince her father to buy an electric reclining chair to elevate his legs, now that he has become too weak for his old hand-operated recliner.

“They’re expensive,” Gibson explained, “and he didn’t want to spend the money.”

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