Children need to get familiar with aging parents' finances

Posted: Thursday, April 12, 2001

NEW YORK (AP) -- When Mary Kay Redefer celebrated her father's 80th birthday the other day in Chillicothe, Ohio, there was obvious cause for joy. There also was reason for concern.

Her independent-minded father had been looking after himself and his wife, who is 78 and in a nursing home since breaking a hip in February. Now he's been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease.

So Redefer, a schoolteacher with two children who lives in Athens, Ohio, has begun to involve herself more fully in her father's legal and financial affairs. She, a sister and two brothers already had protectively arranged powers of attorney and an executorship. Now they are starting to familiarize themselves with details of their parents' income, investments and insurance coverage.

''We've just begun sharing the information,'' she said, of a process that isn't easy for her or her father. ''He always ran his own affairs, and he's done an excellent job of it.''

Redefer and her siblings are in their 40s and 50s, members of the ''sandwich generation'' of Baby Boomers who, while still raising their children, are also assuming responsibility for aging parents. It is a sensitive, complicated and sometimes costly endeavor -- and, according to experts, best dealt with as early and as thoroughly as possible.

''It's obviously a touchy situation,'' said Gary Schatsky, a financial planner in New York City. ''Not all parents share their financial situation with their children. But you've got to have an understanding of their financial stream, their assets and of course you need to know their health situation going forward. Ignorance in any of these areas can make the planning process difficult.''

To effectively help your parents and yourself, you should try to develop a financial plan years before their health starts to fail. ''You shouldn't wait until you find a problem,'' Schatsky said.

Often, Boomers find themselves confronting their parents' medical care costs, which can be stunningly high and devour even a well-padded retirement account quickly. Bills from the nursing home for Redefer's mother run $13,000 a month, and she is covered by Medicare and supplemental insurance for just three months. ''If she stays there longer, it will come out of their pockets,'' she said.

Elder medical care costs vary widely according to region, according to the Metlife Mature Market Institute, which found nursing home rates -- doctors' fees and other special medical charges excluded -- ranging from an average $90 a day in parts of Minnesota to $295 a day in New York City for a private room. A half day of at-home care can cost $12 an hour in San Antonio and $24 in Hartford, Conn.

Medical and nursing home bills aren't the only costs. A Metlife study in 1999 concluded that a working person obliged to provide care and financial assistance to an elderly relative can lose up to $650,000 in lifetime earnings by passing up promotions, leaving work early or going part-time.

''A lot people don't think ahead and find themselves having to make what I call a 'just in time' arrangement,'' said gerontology specialist Denise Talbot-White of the Metlife institute. ''You get a call saying, ''Your mother has fallen, broken her hip, had a stroke. I think you better get over here.'''

She suggests staying in close touch with parents regarding their health, and investigating ahead of time what is available in nursing care and home care. She speaks from experience, having helped her mother, now 83 and suffering from vascular dementia, enter a Connecticut nursing home in 1999.

''I had a good idea what route to take with her, but if you can't get the older person to be forthcoming about things, then you have to be prepared to make these decisions on your own,'' she said.

Because she is schooled in issues of aging, Talbot-White was somewhat prepared. Her mother already had prepared a living will, given her a power of attorney and listed her as a joint holder on bank accounts.

The challenge, she noted, is doing this ''without having them perceive it as a loss of independence.''

Long-term care insurance promoted by many insurance companies is often not an option for older people, although it may be for their Boomer children. Premiums for anyone entering a plan at age 65 or 70 would be very high, and they are not likely to qualify if they already have a chronic health problem.

According to the Insurance Information Institute of New York, a long-term care policy that costs a 50-year-old $888 a year would cost a 79-year-old $5,880. Only those retiring with $100,000 to $600,000 in assets should consider a getting a policy, the institute says; those with less can take advantage of Medicaid, those with more can probably invest it in something better.


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