Taking Care

Phil Dawson

MY PARENTS WERE married in 1947 and produced six children over the ensuing 17 years. Dad remained with us, in diminishing health, until 2008. Since then, my siblings and I have been looking after our Mom and her day-to-day needs.

Despite the seemingly endless chaos involved, we have done remarkably well. Here are just six of the things we’ve learned:

1. Your expiration date is unknown.    

When observing longevity in our family over several generations, there seemed to be a lot of expirations around age 80, with a hard cap just south of 90. Mom sailed past 90 a few years ago and remains in good health. Her brother-in-law, also a nonagenarian, plays softball in the summer and ice skates in the winter. While rough estimates can be made, there is simply no reliable way to predict these things. Unless you have some special revelation in this regard, I would suggest adding 10 years to your initial financial planning assumptions.

2. Your future income needs are unknown. 

In terms of assets, Mom has her home—the second of two she and Dad built together—and an exceedingly modest Railroad Retirement pension. That’s it. The pension just about covered her nondiscretionary expenses when Dad died. Over the past 10 years, rising costs has reduced that coverage to about 80%.

Mom is blessed with children that are willing and able to cover the shortfall. Otherwise, hard decisions would need to be made. Even the house, while providing shelter, comfort and memories, requires the attention and money that all houses do. We may eventually need the equity therein as a financial resource.

My advice: Assume—because one must assume—that you’ll need far more resources than you expect. Then start saving. Now.

3. Your future caregivers are unknown.

While her remaining children and grandchildren all contribute to Mom’s care, death and divorce have had an impact on her inner circle of caregivers. Dad had the notion that, whatever the need, we would always have more than enough volunteers for everything.

But the fact is, when needs arise, someone has to disrupt some other portion of their life to meet them. As you age, you’re going to need more help than you can imagine. Become aware of your resources. Make friends before you need them. Be good company for those around you.

4. Many hands make for light work and more disagreements. 

Family dynamics will be either an important source of mutual support or an irremediable impediment—but, most likely, some ratio thereof. Not everyone is willing or able to contribute in every way. Opinions about the best course of care will differ. Feathers will ruffle and fuses will get short. Everyone will reach the end of their tether at some point. Expect it. Don’t stop talking to those with whom you disagree. As best you’re able, promote healthy relationships among your family members, especially if you’re the one receiving help. They are going to need each other to take care of you.

5. Your family, if you have one, may not be a bottomless resource.

It’s really hard to quantify the market value, or even the net cost, of the goods and services we provide to Mom, but I suspect I would be astonished by the calculation. I don’t know how Mom would manage without her family. That said, we are all volunteers with our own weaknesses and limitations.

Assume that your family, however generous, may not always be able or willing to help you. Financial resources, if you have them, may provide helpful options.

6. Nothing (good or bad) lasts forever.    

How long can we keep this up? I have no idea. In the best case, the rare periods of respite and grace are bound to get shorter, as the frequency and intensity of our efforts increase. In the worst case, we are one wretched phone call away from a complete disruption of our very tenuous balance. As you plan for the unknowable, keep in mind the words of Michael McGriffy: “Blessed are the flexible, for they shall not be bent out of shape.”

When not paddling, biking or shooting, Phil Dawson provides technical services for a global auto manufacturer. He, his sweetheart Donna and their four extraordinary daughters live in and around Jarrettsville, Maryland. His previous articles include Twelve RulesGot to Believe and No Exit. You can contact Phil via LinkedIn.

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