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The View From Unretirement

Sept. 29, 2022, 12:42 p.m. EDT

Caregiving can turn your retirement plans upside down

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By Richard Eisenberg

You start retirement with idyllic dreams about all the things you’ll now have time to do, plus maybe some part-time work and volunteering, and then, whammo: you’re suddenly thrust into becoming a caregiver for a parent, parent-in-law or spouse. 

The best-laid plans…

There are a few things you can — and probably should — do to help yourself and your loved one if you’re a caregiver in retirement, as I’ll explain shortly.

Nearly one in five family caregivers are 65+, according to the AARP/National Alliance for Caregiving (NAC) survey; Caregiving in the U.S. 2020 . Most of them are assisting a parent, parent-in-law, spouse or partner.

Caregiving and early retirement

“Caregiving often can pull people out of the workforce a lot sooner than they thought and can cause a retirement earlier than expected,” says Meredith Stoddard, life events experience lead at Fidelity Investments.

For some caregivers, says Family Caregiver Alliance Client Services Director Christina Irving, “the cost of paying for in-home care ends up being more than what their income is” from working.

Caregiving led 15% of respondents to switch from full-time to either part-time work or reduced work hours, according to to the AARP/NAC survey, while 6% gave up work entirely and 5% retired early.

Spousal caregivers are more likely than parental caregivers to reduce their work hours, give up work entirely or retire early, according to a 2019 Government Accountability Office report .

But, Irving says, “most of the time, people aren’t prepared for what it means to be a caregiver.”

How caregiving upended this couple’s retirement

Laura Wood and her husband John fit that bill. They retired about three years ago, moving from Virginia to sunny Pensacola, Fla., with great expectations. “We were hoping to spend more time with our three grown children who are spread out across the country and see my mother-in-law or have her come visit,” says Laura.

Two years after retiring, the Woods realized Laura’s widowed mother in New Jersey had developed memory problems requiring assistance. So, Laura’s mom moved in with them.  

“I knew it would be a big change. I didn’t know how big of a change it was going to be,” says Laura. The responsibility, she adds, “sometimes is daunting — and the fact that you’re kind of on call 24/7.” In addition, she notes, the role reversal of essentially becoming your parent’s parent “just puts an emotional and difficult layer on things that can make it even harder.”

Laura’s mother lived with the Woods until May 2022; she now lives in a Pensacola memory-care facility, where Laura visits her four days a week. “My husband has said a few times, ‘You know, our life still revolves around her.’ And to an extent, that’s true.”

Jonathan Davis, CEO of the family-caregiver training platform Trualta , says: “We hear from people all the time who are entering what they expect to be a carefree time in their lives only to be thrown into caregiving seemingly overnight. Not only does their vision of retirement change, but their financial situation and mental state are impacted as well.”

Caregiving’s effects on caregivers

As a new report from the National Alliance for Caregiving and the National Association of Chronic Disease Directors noted: “Family caregivers face an increased risk of deteriorating health and financial insecurity.” Medicare generally doesn’t cover the cost of home care, so caregivers are typically on the hook — sometimes for thousands of dollars a year.

When you become a family caregiver, as 53 million Americans are, you might find yourself suddenly becoming a combination of financial planner, medical assistant and psychologist for your loved one.

The role of caregiver, Kimberly Fraser writes in her forthcoming book “ The Accidental Caregiver ,” is “all consuming — physically, spiritually, and emotionally.” Some 36% of caregivers surveyed by AARP and NAC said caregiving meant “high emotional stress.”

Most caregivers AARP and NAC surveyed (53%) felt they didn’t have a choice taking on this responsibility.

“You don’t sit and say, ‘Well, you know, what are the pros and cons?’ You just do it,” says Susanne White, the author of “ Self-Care for Caregivers ” who was a caregiver for her parents.

Finding meaning and purpose through caregiving

Being a caregiver, however, can also provide you with meaning and purpose in retirement. In fact, 51% of family caregivers surveyed by AARP and NAC said being a caregiver gave them a sense of purpose.

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