Who Will Care?

Dennis Friedman

WHEN MY DAD HAD cancer, we’d take walks through the neighborhood. One day, on our stroll, we met a neighbor, Ted. My dad introduced me. “This is my son, Denny, he’s taking care of me.”

Ted gave me a smile and said, “I hope my son will take care of me if I need help.”

Not long after that conversation, my dad was in hospice care. My mother and I were standing over his bed. My dad looked up at me and asked, “Who’s going to take care of you when you need help?”

I was surprised by his question. I was single at the time, and don’t have children. All I could think to say was, “Don’t worry about me. I can take care of myself.”

Before I started looking after my parents, I’d never seriously thought about needing help in my later years. I’ve fended for myself most of my adult life. I had something of an independent streak and liked being on my own—until I met my wife.

One morning, when I was sitting with Rachel in our kitchen, I asked, “What would you do if something happened to me? Would you sell the house and move closer to Justin?”

“I’ll stay here until I can’t take care of myself anymore, ” Rachel said. “Then I’ll probably move closer to him.” Justin, my son-in-law, lives on the East Coast.

Rachel didn’t need to ask me what I’d do if I was on my own. She knows I’d do everything possible to stay in our house.

I recently wrote an article about the top four things that make me happy. If I had to add a fifth item, it would be our house. I like where we live. The neighborhood is safe, and has good walking and biking trails. We’re close to everything, including our doctors. There are plenty of trees, as well as a lake a few blocks from our home. It doesn’t feel or look like a typical Southern California neighborhood. For me, there’s also a lot of history here. In 1978, my parents moved into the house where Rachel and I now live. I was just 27 years old when I first visited them here some 45 years ago.

My wife and I will take care of each other for as long as we can. Still, there’s a good chance Rachel will outlive me. I’m six years older. She’s in good health and doesn’t take any medication. More important, she takes good care of herself. The odds are that Rachel will be there for me in my time of need—and I won’t be there for her. That’s why I worry about her later years more than mine.

We both agree we want to stay in our house for as long as we can. A continuing care retirement community isn’t something we’re interested in. Meanwhile, at age 72, I’d probably have a difficult time qualifying for long-term-care (LTC) insurance because of some existing medical issues. It would have been best to purchase a policy before I turned 65, which is when various medical conditions first emerged. I still might qualify for a hybrid life-LTC insurance policy because the medical qualifications aren’t as stringent. But from what I’ve read, hybrid policies tend to be more expensive than purchasing a standalone LTC policy.

I thought about buying an LTC policy just for my wife, but she’s against the idea if we can’t get one together. We’ve both come to the same conclusion—as we have many times before—that we should have enough to self-fund our LTC needs, which we measured using AARP’s long-term-care cost calculator. Of course, there’s no way of really knowing how much in-home care we’d need and for how long. In addition, health care costs could outpace inflation, making the potential tab more daunting over time.

Still, we feel confident about our plan to self-fund our care. We have a few things working in our favor:

  • We could deduct care costs that exceed 7.5% of our adjusted gross income on our tax return, thereby reducing our net cost.
  • My Social Security benefits, which I took at age 70, should be enough to cover our other living expenses.
  • If necessary, we could do a reverse mortgage to help fund our long-term care.
  • We could even rent out one of our bedrooms to make extra money. We live close to a university, so finding a tenant shouldn’t be a problem.

There’s one thing I’m certain about: I don’t want anyone, including my son-in-law, taking care of me. I love Justin and we get along great, but I know how much work is involved in taking care of someone and how it can turn your life upside down. I don’t want that for him or anyone else.

I was physically and mentally drained by the time my mother passed away. I put my life on hold to take care of my parents. I wanted to marry Rachel, but we waited. How do you marry someone when you spend most of your time looking after a parent? That’s not an ideal way to start a marriage. I was also afraid that, if I got married, my mother might think I’d stop taking care of her. That was the last thing I wanted her to think.

It was also a difficult situation for my mother. She thought my spending so much time with her was driving Rachel and me apart. Occasionally, she’d ask if everything was okay between us. Sometimes, the only way I could convince her our relationship was solid was to have Rachel talk to her. She wouldn’t take my word for it.

I was lucky that Rachel was patient and understanding because her life was also affected. But she knew what I was going through. Her brother was taking care of her mother, who was about a year younger than my mother. Although Rachel and her sister helped, her brother did the heavy-lifting because he lived much closer and was retired.

I have no regrets about taking care of my parents. I would do it all over again. I would like to think it made me a better person. I have great respect for anyone who’s willing to make the sacrifices necessary to care for a loved one. Not everyone is able or willing to do that.

Most of all, I’m pleased that Rachel and I were good savers and lived below our means in our early years—because that means we won’t have to burden Justin with our long-term care needs in our later years.

Dennis Friedman retired from Boeing Satellite Systems after a 30-year career in manufacturing. Born in Ohio, Dennis is a California transplant with a bachelor’s degree in history and an MBA. A self-described “humble investor,” he likes reading historical novels and about personal finance. Check out his earlier articles and follow him on Twitter @DMFrie.

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